Review: The Secret History, Donna Tartt

The best-seller from Donna Tartt is tight, suspenseful and utterly gripping

Timidly, but full of anticipation, I enter Waterstones to look for my next read. Drifting among the shelves, I scrutinise the bright, glossy covers as I go. I’m looking for something…something special. I’m sifting through the contents of the book-covered table in front of me, feeling uninspired, when, suddenly, from behind me:

This is something truly special…I will always recommend this to everyone!”

I take a quick intake of breath and spin around, grabbing the book which the young woman across from me is pointing out to her friend. Hurriedly I run to the check-out and the second I get home, I start to read. I do not stop for the next six hours.

The book I’m referring to is The Secret History by Donna Tartt, perhaps the best thing to come out of the nineties (apart from Nirvana and the scrunchie). Tartt’s influence is by no means restricted to the nineties: last year she made waves by winning the Pulitzer Prize for the Goldfinch and being featured in Time’s “The 100 Most Influential People in 2014” list. I’m not going to lie, I kind of wish I was her. Not only did she publish her first novel before the age of thirty, she has great personal style (Vanity Fair’s 2014 best-dressed list anyone?) and personally knows Brett Easton Ellis.

The Secret History is about Richard, a disillusioned undergraduate at an exclusive liberal arts college in East Coast America. Isolated from his peers and weighed down by the bleak mundanity of the everyday, he finds an escape in an enigmatic group of Classics students. These individuals are eccentric and cultured, just as Richard aspires to be himself, but reckless and ultimately dangerous. The novel opens with the murder of one of these students, Bunny, and slowly reveals the hidden resentment and secrets that led to his death. Far from making The Secret History a murder mystery that gives itself away too soon, this technique immediately interests the reader and sets a chilling tone which presides over the majority of the novel.

As is expected of someone of her literary standing, Tartt writes with formidable skill and intelligence. More than this, she is clearly an author that holds her readers and their intellect in high regard, at least if the references made to Rimbaud, Dostoevsky and Racine are anything to judge by. But more important for the flow of the narrative are the references to the classical world – reality for Richard seems to be blurred with the Greek myths that he’s been reading and the other characters’ attempts to emulate them proves disastrous. Furthermore, the claustrophobic, oppressive atmosphere of the university in which the action is set adds to the painfully tense plot in a way that clearly draws inspiration from the Greek tragic tradition. Indeed, the characters can never be classified in simple terms of “good” or “bad” and have a propensity for intense cruelty towards one another, aspects of their character which mirror the tragic tradition. By appropriating these dramatic techniques, Tartt creates a dream-like atmosphere in which every detail of the plot seems entirely believable and credible, even when they’re anything but in hindsight.

Richard’s struggle to find happiness, to be accepted and to be loved are the underlying currents to this novel and it is through tackling these issues that Tartt has made her book into a best-seller. And while Richard is snobbish and conceited, he is someone the reader genuinely identifies with and a character whose personal difficulties the reader becomes deeply involved in – perhaps in his role of outsider and onlooker he is closest to the reader in their own positon outside of the plot.

The Secret History successfully balances literary merit with being incredibly readable and enjoyable in beautifully taut and, at times, humorous prose. The youth and naivety beautifully encapsulated by Tartt and the lush, idyllic scenery of the university campus contrast starkly with the events which unravel. Perhaps this is the central tension of the novel, that the innocence and purity of youth will inevitably be soiled by the pressures of the “real world” which crashes in on Richard. I would definitely urge you to read this novel, regardless of your literary taste; this is a novel of tremendous originality which you will be a favourite of yours for many years to come.

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