Book Review: The Secret History

Monday 14 April 2014 by

The Secret History Donna TarttThe Secret History by Donna Tartt

Published by Penguin

660 pages

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.

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I decided to read this after hearing a feature on a podcast about Donna Tartt’s new book, The Goldfinch. She’s such a fantastic writer (from all accounts) that I decided I had better start from the beginning – especially as they also talked about The Secret History in the podcast and it sounded brilliant.

It begins with a death. Or, more specifically, the aftermath of a death. Our protagonist, Richard, proceeds to tell us the full story of Bunny’s death in over 600 pages of poetic, lilting story of dark, twisted morality and drug-hazed confusion.

I can’t decide if I utterly loved this book or not – the characters were often so morally repugnant that I wanted to put it down and walk away forever, but the story itself was so compelling that I couldn’t help but read on (and enjoy it). It is an inevitable conclusion – after all, you’re warned about the death from page one – but the build-up to it is extraordinarily winding, until you even begin to question yourself. But it doesn’t end there; the ripples directly after Bunny’s death are explained in heart-p0unding detail too, and you are held captive to this group of frankly unpleasant people.

Richard is a lazy character, whose narration is frustrating at times due to the fact that key events are often going on without him and so we hear them second- or even third-hand. The other main characters – twins Camilla and Charles, Henry, Francis, Bunny – are more interesting stories to behold, and more complex characters to investigate, but they become periphery to Richard’s confusing spiral from control.

There is a running thread of Greek classics throughout (they are studying this with the ephemeral Julian), and the plot twines around the myths and mysteries of the ancient civilisation in an intoxicating parallel. And for me, this was almost the most fascinating part. Putting aside the tribulations of college life (Hampden college is in itself an extra character, its seasons adding to the drama), this is ultimately a tale of children finding out who they are.

But they are also trying to navigate their way out of a Grecian fantasy world that damages their reasoning, and that’s where things start to go wrong. They don’t understand the boundaries between myth and reality, and a testing of that leads to an irreparable trail of events that end in Bunny’s death.

I can’t really detail too much of the plot because it would take hundreds of words and not make a whole lot of sense, but this is a book of majestic ambition and satisfyingly lives up to its promise. Despite the less-than-loveable characters, and the winding, prosaic plot, you are captivated from beginning to end.

Although I couldn’t decide if I totally loved it, I definitely enjoyed this book. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys literary fiction, but not if you get easily frustrated.

5 Houses

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