The Secret History, Donna Tartt, Pg.2
I started reading Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History, immediately after I finished The Goldfinch as part of the Baileys Prize shortlist challenge I set myself over a month ago now (though, with Angela Carter week and a couple of review copies to read, I have only now had the chance to reflect on it). I am completely addicted to Tartt’s miniaturist style and the way her words can fully immerse me into the story, like I am there in the midst of the action, witnessing the awful (and they are always awful) events that are about to transpire. She is a master of descriptive writing, just like Charles Dickens – her literary idol, and her words can literally paint a clear and vivid picture:
‘The very colours of the place seeped into my blood: just as Hampden, in subsequent years, would always present itself immediately to my imagination in a confused whirl of white and green and red, so the country house first appeared as a glorious blur of watercolours, of ivory and lapis blue, chestnut and burnt orange and gold, separating only gradually into the boundaries of remembered objects: the house, the sky, the maple trees. But even that day, there on the porch, with Charles beside me and the smell of wood smoke in the air, it had the quality of a memory; there it was, before my eyes, and yet too beautiful to believe’.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt, Pg.113
I have also heard all about the cult following surrounding Tartt’s debut so I couldn’t wait to start reading The Secret History. I was not disappointed. Tartt, like some of my favourite contemporary authors – Margaret Atwood, Marilynne Robinson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – makes me feel safe and secure in the knowledge that I am reading brilliant literature. She knows how to write instant classics that will stand the test of time and The Secret History is a testament to this. After 22 years its legacy and its ‘cult’ following still remains stronger than ever.
The Secret History begins, much like how The Goldfinch does, with the revelation of a terrible event that has rocked the protagonists’ world. In the Prologue we are told about the death of a friend, Bunny, or, more specifically, his premeditated murder: ‘the loose rocks, the body at the bottom of the ravine with a clean break in the neck, and the muddy skidmarks of dug-in heels pointing the way down’ (pg.1). Richard Papen’s first person narrative reveals everything – the facts of the climactic event that will haunt his life – in these first few pages. Nothing is left to the imagination. Yet, as the narrative jumps back to the ‘beginning’, in an effort to explain how the actions of this eccentric group of students led to murder, Tartt manages to grip my imagination and create a story steeped in suspense. At over 600 pages long, it is no short read, but I found Tartt’s style so beautiful and effortless that I raced through the pages with the paradoxical feeling of wanting to know what happened and how, but also not wanting the story to end.
‘It is easy to see things in retrospect. But I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen’.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt, Pg.102
Set in the beautiful New England landscape, The Secret History tells the tale of a close-knit group of Classics students headed by their eccentric professor, Julian. Comprised of five affluent and extremely intelligent individuals – Henry, Francis, Charles, Camilla and Bunny – the protagonist, Richard, arrives in Hampden as the Californian outsider. Intrigued by this mysterious clique, Richard attempts to fit in by painfully trying to hide his relatively poor upbringing. Going to extremes to cover the fact that he has to work in order to sustain any semblance of privilege, Richard eventually finds himself indebted to Henry – the unquestionable ring leader. By far the wealthiest, most intelligent and impossible to deduce, Henry is, by all appearances, a sincere and honest guy. However, there are many small, niggling instances Richard glosses over that would suggest that his early days as part of this exclusive club are anything but perfect. Despite fighting his way onto Julian’s rigid Classics major, where the professor believes that ‘having a great diversity of teachers is harmful and confusing for a young mind, in the same way I believe that it is better to know one book intimately than a hundred superficially’, and alienating himself from the rest of his year, Richard isn’t any closer to being in on the secrets of these five intriguing individuals.
‘It was one of those mysterious oppressive days we sometimes had at Hampden, where the mountains that lowered at the horizon were swallowed up in fog and the world seemed light and empty, dangerous somehow’.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt, Pg.413
Fraught with suspense, in the heart of a romanticised, idyllic landscape of academia, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History gripped me to the core and left me gasping for air. The cult-like, though fully-fleshed-out, existence of the main characters is seductive to the point where I, like Richard, wanted to be a part of their clique. As Alice from ofBooks writes in her recent review: ‘By the end of the novel even I felt guilty, for hating Bunny, for accepting murder’. I felt exactly the same – almost ashamed that I never questioned Henry or the group’s actions, no matter how much they escalated from normality to madness. From a story of humble beginnings, of a person just trying to fit in – a story we can all relate to in one way or another – Tartt sweeps us up and drives us to the brink of the ravine, not just witnessing, but also complicit in, the murder of a friend.
‘It’s funny, but thinking back on it now, I realise that this particular point in time, as I stood there blinking in the deserted hall, was the one point at which I might have chosen to do something very different from what I actually did. But of course I didn’t see this crucial moment then for what it was; I suppose we never do. Instead, I only yawned, and shook myself from the momentary daze that had come upon me, and went on my way down the stairs’.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt, Pg.223
As Richard states, in hindsight things may have turned out differently. But that is the wonderfully ironic nature of hindsight – you only recognise moments that can change the direction of your life in retrospect. During the moment you may not see any other options available to you, which is certainly the case for Richard as he becomes further and further embroiled in the inevitable madness that ensues.
Donna Tartt’s debut novel, The Secret History, is a stunningly heady and nostalgic account of university life where reinvention, transformation and enlightenment are all possible. Where, in an idyllic world, anything is possible. I was left feeling in awe of such a powerful and haunting tale. It is easily one of the best novels I have read.