Donna Tartt’s debut novel from 1992 has become something of a modern classic (although, is 28 years really ‘modern’ anymore) and is featured on many readers’ ‘favourite novels’ list. I bought the book about a decade ago and since its publication Tartt has gone on to write two more critically acclaimed novels, The Little Friend and The Goldfinch. So I thought it was about time I gave it a shot.
The Californian narrator of the novel, Richard Papen, arrives at a private college in New England, to study Classics under the tutelage of an eccentric professor, Julien Morrow. The class is a close-knit group, containing only five other students – Henry Winter, fraternal twins Charles and Camilla Macauley, Francis Abernathy, and Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran. They are a lofty, arrogant group; difficult to like. But Richard begins to grow close to them as the term progresses. When a shocking secret is revealed, Richard is taken into the others’ confidence. This knowledge comes at a price. The aftermath begins to take its effect on their existences. Slowly, inexorably, the truth begins to blur and facts are revealed, and the lives of the group start to unravel, eventually with murderous consequences.
The Secret History is a loooong book. I think it checks in at nearly 192,000 words, which – for any novel, let alone a first novel – is remarkable. But more than its length, it’s also a very dense novel, in that the prose style is rather classical and old-fashioned, very befitting of the subject. But I have to say, I loved every single one of its pages. It’s no exaggeration to say that The Secret History instantly goes into my favourite novels of all time list.
The narrator is the most likeable character. He’s from a modest upbringing, unlike the others in the group who all come from privileged backgrounds. There’s a great deal of snobbery and entitlement to them, but Tartt is superb at conveying the development of their relationships. In time you get to see the vulnerability of the characters so that by the end you get to, if not quite like them, at least feel you know them well. There’s an almost timeless feel to the prose; it seems like it could be set either in the 1950s just as much as its contemporary setting.
The prologue is up there with some of the best opening paragraphs ever written – it’s closely behind Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, for me – and even in the first line you know exactly which of the characters is going to do. So I suppose to some extents it’s an inverted mystery. However the story isn’t really the point of the novel. It’s the journey that counts in this one, not the destination (although the murder doesn’t occur at the end of the novel anyway). It is fascinating to see the way the dynamic of the group changes, and the development of the characters’ mental states as the full impact of what they’ve done starts to take hold. From a cinematic perspective The Secret History reminded me of a cross between Dead Poet’s Society and The Talented Mr Ripley. Actually, I could imagine fans of Patricia Highsmith loving this, as the suspense and psychological journey the characters embark on is something prevalent in much of her fiction.
It’s testament to Donna Tartt’s writing that she manages to pull off a couple of ludicrous plot points and still make them believable. You accept these as part of the story because you always feel she is 100% in control of the prose. The atmosphere is spot on, the character development is sound, there’s a satisfying pace to the proceedings, and the whole thing has the air of melancholy and tragedy looming over it, a suggestion of the numinous; even a hint of the supernatural. I just know that this is a novel I’ll return to every few years. I absolutely loved it and have no hesitation of recommending it.