Donna Tartt's The Secret History is one of my all-time, desert-island, top-favourite books. I've lost count of the number of times I've read it, and each time I notice something new, and get something different out of it. The gripping, page-turning narrative is extraordinary when you consider that from the first page the reader already knows who will be murdered, and by whom; even on the tenth or eleventh reading you can't help but be caught up in the plot.
Some critics have faulted the novel for its characterisation, saying that the characters are largely unlikeable and two-dimensional, always appearing in the same light: Henry with blank flashing glasses, Bunny's hair constantly flopping into his eyes, Camillla usually glowing in some way. To me these are evidence of Tartt's debt to Classical literature's fondness for epithets. The formal quality of Tartt's repetition of these attributes leads me to think they are far more than simply lazy writing. Just as, in Homer, Achilles is often 'swift-footed Achilles', here Henry is 'Henry with the flashing glasses' and Camilla is 'luminous'.
Furthermore, I like the way that none of the characters are entirely likeable or, for that matter, dislikeable. Although they all have strange ways or irritating manners, none of them are irredeemably antagonistic; you feel sorry for stuffy, pedantic Henry when he describes his horrible holiday with Bunny, even though he is now plotting Bunny's murder. In fact the horror of Bunny's death does not stem from the extraordinary pressure - their fear of him revealing what he knows about the death of the farmer - but from the ordinary factors that push them towards murder. You feel that Bunny's constant, niggling bullying is as important a motive for his murder as the larger fear of discovery. Everyone can relate to the violent wish to get rid of someone who is a grinding irritation; the chilling manner in which this sense of irritation escalates to murder is at the heart of the novel.
The main characters' isolation from the modern world, and their attempts to escape into academia and in ancient, self-escaping Dionysiac rites, is brilliantly drawn. Although the friends' attempts to escape ultimately end in destructive, violent failure, in telling their story Tartt offers the reader a true escape from the outside world.
The Secret History offers a different perspective on conventional college life, beyond the usual shenanigans of mainstream students.
Structured like a Greek tragedy, the book is narrated by Richard Papen, who stands for the Chorus in a traditional Greek play. Although the reader experiences the story through his eyes, he always seems detached and set apart from the story he is telling. He is also the only character for whom the reader is never given any sort of physical description.
Near the beginning of the novel, Richard admits recreating his own past. This indicates he is capable of becoming a blank canvas that can reflect his surroundings and help him blend in seamlessly.
The other characters, although entirely credible, are seen only through his interaction with them. They reveal their essence in their dealings with Richard, the foil to all of their characteristics and flaws.
Tartt gives the reader no more than a sketch of most of the main characters. Although we believe in them all, one comes away feeling there is more than meets the eye to each and every one of them.
The plot is tight and shifts between moving at breakneck speed and reflecting the languid lethargy of youth on holiday.
Woven into the fabric of the tale are a vast number of references to Greek language and literature. The novel is thoroughly enjoyable even without knowledge of this subject, however an understanding of the books and personalities mentioned throughout adds another dimension to the story.
Tartt’s novel is dark in tone, and the group’s constant drinking and nonchalant drug use adds to the effect. Try as they might to convince themselves they are above the rest of the college, these practices reveal that, beneath the cultured veneer they show the world, the elite set are closer to their contemporaries than they would wish to believe.
Although Bunny’s murder is revealed in the opening pages, the reader is made to feel as though each of the characters, and even the storyline itself, is on the edge – waiting to explode. It is this precariousness that draws the reader in and results in a thriller of the highest intensity.
Review by Angele Spiteri Paris
At first glance The Secret History may be daunting in its size and subject matter. One wouldn't expect that a novel full of references to Classical literature, myth and legend would be so accessible to such a wide audience.
The key reason for the novel’s great success is that it appeals to a cross section of readers, straddling several genres: murder mystery, literary fiction, and Ancient Greek semantics. It is also a coming-of-age novel where readers follow protagonist Richard Papen from adolescent naivety to adulthood. We share his moral mistakes and dilemmas as the story unfolds.
Richard's voice is believable and likable, and the characterisation is superb. Each of the central characters are distinctive and equally crucial to the plot. Whilst Richard takes centre stage as the affable hero, Tartt leaves it to the readers to decide whether it is Henry or Bunny who is the real villain and if there is, indeed, a villain at all.
The use of Greek legend in the plot is unique. However, whilst Tartt tries her hardest not to alienate her readers with the use of lengthy passages of Greek jargon, at times readers may find themselves skim reading the Greek teachings in order to get back to the enticing plot and engaging dialect.
Readers may find that the Prologue is slightly difficult to get into since it starts with an event that takes place halfway through the book. But one ought to persevere because all becomes clear by the first chapter. Likewise the pace in the beginning of Part Two slows ever so slightly, but in this slight slump the plot is still thickening, so there is no need to be disappointed.
The novel's end is entirely satisfactory and extremely emotive without the conclusion being predictable or too contrived. The many twists in the plot mean that it is the sort of novel that you can re-read year after year. It is a true epic.
'A huge, mesmerizing, galloping read, pleasurably devoured... gorgeously written, relentlessly erudite.' Vanity Fair
'Brilliant' Sunday Times
'Mesmerizing and perverse' Elaine Showalter, The Times Literary Supplement
'Excellent; Donna Tartt has discovered not the usual collegiate mix of sex, drugs and rock and roll, but a heart of darkness as stony and chilling as any Greek tragedian ever plumbed; she keeps the pace fast and the tension taut...a thinking person's thriller' Newsday
'The Secret History tells the story of a group of classics students at an elite American college, who are cerebal, obsessive and finally murderous... it is a haunting, compelling and brilliant piece of fiction.' The Times