One From the Archive: ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt ****

I read this wonderful novel whilst away in France for a long weekend, and found it a perfect book to absorb myself within as the rain streamed down across the beach outside.  I have been wanting to read Tartt’s work for such a long time, as everything which I have heard about her novels is marvellous, and I was therefore particularly pleased when April chose what is arguably her most famous of her three published novels as our February book club read.

Its premise intrigued me from the start:

“Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another… a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life… and led to a gruesome death. And that was just the beginning…”

‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt

First published in 1992, The Secret History has become something of a cult classic.  I did not quite know what to expect when I began the novel, but upon reflection, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it quite so much if it had not unfolded in the exact way in which it did.  Broadly speaking, it is a crime novel, but the many labyrinthine layers of plot which Tartt has woven in mean that as a whole, it is much more than that.  She has laid one detail on top of another to create a rich tapestry, and this technique becomes apparent as one gets swept into the story.  The structure suited the plot so very well, and I liked the way in which the pivotal point of the novel came right at the beginning, and was then worked towards in the first half of the book.  The second half dealt with the consequences of Bunny’s death.  Throughout, particularly with the little clues which are dropped in here and there, it feels as though the reader is given time to build up their own theories about the story, and this consideration within crime novels such as this one works marvellously.

The novel, which takes place within an arts college in Vermont, begins in such an intriguing manner:

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

In this way, Tartt is masterful at injecting feelings of foreboding into her work, and there is a marvellously suffocating feeling of things yet to come which manifests itself in her words at times.  She is such an intelligent author – for me, this showed itself most clearly in the philosophical conversations which the characters often had with one another – and the reason as to why it took her such a long time to write is certainly clear.

Tartt’s characters all interested me, and the relationships drawn between them were so intricate.  I did not like Richard at any point, but he was certainly a marvellous choice of narrator, good as he was at systematically reporting everything which mattered.  Whilst he was part of the friendship group, he still remained an outsider of sorts, and this placed him in a great position to report upon the piece.  Tartt believably builds up the male narrative voice, and at no point does it feel overly feminine as novels by women can tend to.  Richard is not an overly masculine creature in his character, and this does come across from the start, but it seems like a trait which one is able to believe in.  In terms of the characters whom I admired and liked, I was drawn towards fellow student Henry and lecturer Julian immediately – perhaps merely because they were such enigmatic beings, and one could never guess what they were liable to do next.

Some of the imagery which Tartt creates is lovely; the sky, for example, is ‘disordered and wild with stars’.  Throughout, Tartt’s splendid writing and well thought out plot render The Secret History to be a fine novel, and I for one am most looking forward to reading more of her work.

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2 thoughts on “One From the Archive: ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt ****

  1. Reading your post has reminded me how much I enjoyed ‘The Secret History’. I thought it was dazzling. I was so disappointed by her second novel, that I’ve shied away from ‘The Goldfinch’, but maybe I should give her another chance, especially if the glowing reviews are to be believed.

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