Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History is one of those books that had been recommended to me several times by several different people. When Tartt’s most recent novel, The Goldfinch, came out recently I was reminded of The Secret History and thought maybe now was the time to give it a go.

The Secret History is essentially a thriller that gives away the major plot-point in the first few pages. The story follows a group of over-educated, intellectual, privileged New England students, cloistered up in Vermont at a private liberal arts college, as they immerse themselves in the world of the Greeks and mythology; dedicated Classics students who seek to replicate what they see as the highest form of society in their day to day living. Our narrator is Richard Papen, a later addition to the group, who’s ‘outsider’ status (he is neither rich, nor upper class, as the others are) however slight, allows him to observe the others in a slightly removed way. The six students: Richard, Henry, Camilla, Charles, Francis and poor old Bunny, spend almost all their time exclusively together. The opening of the novel informs us that the other five will kill Bunny, but why, how and what happens next is unfurled at a leisurely, tantalising pace.

I had never read any of Donna Tartt’s previous works and I figured starting with her debut was a good way to go. I was initially rather turned off, finding the narrator whiny and priggish and the other characters cool and unengaging.  I found it hard to care whether Richard managed to get into their exclusive Greek class, or what Bunny might have done to upset them. However, gradually, gently – like a spider reeling in a fly – I was completely and totally drawn in. It is astonishing how powerfully Tartt manages to reverse those initial impressions across the novel. Her writing is clever and subtle, and she draws the lines of the plot carefully and slowly. You don’t want to like these people or be interested in them, but you are. Richard too, is drawn to them and perpetually defends them, resolutely looking for the good in them. Knowing what they go on to do, you initially dismiss them as monsters, but amazingly, I found myself rooting for them and while I never went so far as to sympathise with their decision, you certainly feel their desperation.  They are so calm, so unexpectedly kind to each other and to Richard, that somehow the fact that they are all almost perpetually drunk and somewhat out of control starts to slip by  you; though not quite. Every time I felt like I knew these characters, like we had unlocked a truth, Tartt would reveal something hidden from us, or have Richard question his own instincts.

Tartt creates such a distinctive voice, not only for Richard but for his friends as well, that you can almost hear them ringing around in your head. While I am tempted to side wholly and completely with Richard, who had endeared himself to me completely by the end, I must admit that he has surely got to be an unreliable narrator. While this is never made explicit (unlike Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans), we do know that Richard was involved in someone’s murder, as well the ongoing cover up. The facts we get are from him, the way we view people are his views. Everyone in the novel is hiding something, lying to others and keeping secrets. Why then, would Richard be any different? It was something I thought about a lot towards the end of the novel. I had assumed that Richard’s world view was essentially honest, but how would I know? So many secrets come climbing out of the woodwork in the second half of the novel; things that have been hinted at before, if only we – or Richard – cared to look for them. I loved Tartt’s sleight of hand throughout, showing us whatever she wanted us to see, leaving us titbits that may or may not be significant. The paranoia and panic that attends them all in the aftermath only adds to the tense and suspicious atmosphere. I rather enjoyed the not knowing and the wondering about how things might have been and I think Tartt leaves us with as many questions as answers.

I enjoyed Tartt’s characterisation, as they are an unusual and mysterious group of people. As mentioned above, it can be hard to know what’s authentic and what isn’t when it comes to this group. From the start I found their beloved Julian to be an odd, cold fish. Despite Henry’s devotion and Richard’s vivid descriptions of the effect he has on people, he never rang true for me. His need to separate out his students and fill their heads with only his ideas concerned me from the off and I don’t think he ever truly encouraged independent thought.

Of Francis and the twins, Charles and Camilla, I had only the vaguest impression of for much of the novel. They came in to their own in the aftermath of Bunny’s death, showing both their best and worst qualities in a far brighter light. Camilla is rather removed from the reader as she is the object of Richard’s affection and desire and so we can never see her in the more objective way he tries to portray the others. Francis and Charles’ weaknesses and strengths become abundantly clear in the weeks, months and years that follow Bunny’s killing and the destructive, damaging paths they take are heart-breaking as well as horrifying. Charles’s transformation is particularly appalling, as Richard has always seen him as sweet and amiable and when revealed, the darker parts of his nature are even harder to stomach. But then, we’ve already seen what they’re capable of, so should it be that much of a shock?

Richard we feel we know better as he is our narrator and certainly his self-awareness grows throughout the novel. A vain, snobby, lonely young man gives way to a lonely, troubled and reflective twenty-something. Richard’s progression as a character and his understanding of himself and his part in everything grows as he does. It is painful to feel his financial desperation, his fear and his panic over what has been lost. This group of students have given him a sense of purpose and belonging for the first time in his life and his need to support, help and ultimately protect them, stems from this original inclusion. It is an interesting question as to whether they exploit this need to keep and please them, or whether it’s just fated to work in their favour because it’s innate in Richard.

And then we come to Henry and Bunny, our most key players. We know where Bunny’s part of the plot is headed from the beginning, but his character grows and amplifies gradually, his chaotic behaviour increasingly frightening and bizarre. We feel anxious and stressed as Bunny’s demands become greater, as his foulness towards the others gets darker and his malignant presence in their circle becomes increasingly difficult to ignore. Dealing with Bunny as a character can be difficult, as there is no question that he is a deeply unpleasant, bigoted and greedy human being; however, he also has the moral high ground and, as the novel progresses, we see that for all his faults his perceptiveness and understanding of the other five was far greater than they gave him credit for. Bunny is a plot device as much as he is a player in the novel, so it is great credit to Tartt that he is nonetheless a complex and intriguing character.

Henry is Tartt’s best character. He is our de facto leader, an impassive, mysterious person, who commands all and directs every plot machination, yet whom we never really know or understand. Even Tartt’s descriptions of him remain somehow clouded in mystery. He is a physically huge, impressive person, at odds with his intellectual air. This inability to truly ‘know’ Henry is even evident in Tartt’s description of his glasses, which are often ‘glinting’, hiding his expression and without which, Richard notes, he looks completely different. One of the things I liked best about the novel was this inscrutability of Henry. You are left wondering whether he is secretly an evil mastermind, a Machiavelli with a murderous streak, an obsessive control freak, or merely very good at coping under extreme pressure. Henry is in charge and makes all the plans, but the extent to which he is in control and actually driving the action is debatable. He is also unquestioningly the closest to Bunny and how he feels about him and what happens is never exposed, adding yet another layer of intrigue.

I really enjoyed The Secret History (as evidenced by the essay length of this post) and I could have written another 1000 words on it if I thought anyone would read it! It was challenging, exciting, complex and unusual. I’ve found that it’s dug itself into my psyche and I keep coming back to it and questioning my own impressions of it several days after finishing it, wanting to read it again to see if I feel any differently. Heartily and enthusiastically recommended.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  1. Pingback: The Broke & The Bookish – Top 10 Tuesday Link Up | Pop Arts

  2. Pingback: Top 10 Tuesday – Link up with The Broke and the Bookish | Pop Arts

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