Monday, January 22, 2018
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Title: The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication Year: 1992
Genre: Literary Fiction
The Secret History is one of those books that I've held off reading even though so many people have raved about it and recommended it and the subject matter sounds right up my ally (I LOVE psychological thrillers and campus novels). I think that hype tends to scare me off books at least for a while, but this Winter felt like the time had finally come to sink my teeth into this beloved novel.
The plot is essentially a reverse whodunnit. It starts off with a murder and informs you of the murders (the narrator is involved) on the first page and then we backtrack to find out the circumstances that lead to that moment, essentially a why-dunnit. The book is told through the perspective of Richard Papen a transfer student from California to a Vermont Liberal Arts College. Richard soon becomes intrigued by a small group of close Classics students and the Professor who teaches them exclusively. Richard reinvents his working class suburban background and finds himself admitted to this elite circle of students. He soon discovers that there is a dark secret that these students share and slowly but surely he gets sucked into their lives with deadly consequences.
I ended up loving the book and in trying to organize my jumbled up thoughts on this book several things occur to me: People who enjoy complex characters, literary fiction, don't mind ambiguity, love to dig into a text's layers and love beautifully crafted language and slightly stream-of-consciousness style will love this book. If you dislike any of these you might find the book pedantic or dull. For me personally it was just perfect. The characters are generally unlikeable, the scenarios improbable and the ending a bit ambiguous yet Tartt's incredible strong narrative voice manages to transform this story into a haunting, chilling and memorable read.
This is not a small book: my mass market paper back is about 500 pages, but something about Richard's narrative voice kept me hooked the entire way and made the pages fly by. Tartt has such a strong grasp of character, dialogue and emotion that is absolutely bananas that this is a debut. Something about the narrative also makes me with I was in a college literature class dissecting the symbolism in this book with my peers and a professor in an ivy-windowed room. It just oozes that liberal arts collegiate vibe which I am admittedly fond of. It is a book that is self-consciously and unashamedly academic in the best sense of the word.
I am generally not a re-reader except for a very small and specific list of books and I think I will add this book to that list. I would love to re-visit this text (maybe with a highlighter and a Greek dictionary) in the future. I would not recommend this book to everyone but to the people who would enjoy it I can guarantee it will stay with you for a long time after you are done.