Book Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

To be honest, Donna Tartt’s first novel is a rather difficult book to review, primarily because I’m confronted with the question of ‘what exactly do I have to say about this that maybe helpful to a reader’ as I type. There are many ways of reading this story- as an inverted murder mystery, a campus tale, a Greek tragedy, but the way I see it, at its heart, it is a story of human relationships, of really dysfunctional human relationships.

Our narrator is Richard Papen, a lonely, gawky, very insecure teenager who enrolls in a liberal arts college and does his best to hide his impoverished background. Anxious to fit in and make a name for himself, he’s fascinated by the group of Classics scholars who seem to belong to a cult of their own, headed by an elitist Professor who cherry-picks his students. Richard is at first denied entry, but finally let in, into a whole new secret life.
His new classmates are filthy rich, extremely privileged and lead a life of pretence and extravagance. Papen eager as ever to be a part of this elitist crowd fabricates his past and invents a glamorous childhood of his own to rival theirs, but is he ever truly initiated to their Dionysian cult? His new group includes the studious and calculating Henry, the beautiful but secretive twins Charles and Camilla, the closet homosexual Francis whose lavish country house becomes a secret sanctuary for the clique and the ostentatious Bunny.

But Papen soon learns at his own peril that things that seem beautiful from afar can be quite ugly in close-up, when he and the others quiet calmly and strategically plan the murder of unsuspecting Bunny- with which the prologue of the story begins.  It turns out that the group excluding Richard and Bunny has had some sort of a Bacchanal where Henry in a fit of Dionysian frenzy murdered a local farmer. When Bunny discovers the truth he threatens to blackmail the others and for which the swiftest and the only course of option seemed to them is to promptly depose of him. And yes, till the end of the novel, they cleverly manage to evade the campus authorities and the police and lead somewhat-decent lives, but at what cost to their souls and inner happiness? Tartt doesn’t tell the answer, but shows it very deftly in her lucid and enchanting prose.

The author very sensitively examines college life with all the intense friendships and the immense insecurities of that whirlwind age. It gets dark very early here and the characters aren’t the sort you’ll readily root for with their penchant for the ostentatious, their hypocritical sophistication and their apathetic attitudes.  They live in a claustrophobic golden bubble, cut off from the rest of the world by their Greek ideals and snobbishness and when that bubbles of illusory perfection bursts, they fall, like the fallen angels beyond all moral reprehension, into evil.

Everyone in that group has a moral failing and a past with bitter memories, but what is it that warps them into twisted beings? Is it the fear of not belonging, of not being able to exist in isolation, of doing whatever it takes to escape the seeming disaster at hand, by abandoning all moral caution? Tartt’s mastery lies in the fact that she makes all the events and the characters in the book seem so plausible- that some people despite play-acting at adults, cannot and will never grow up. These characters are terrible, yet they exert a grotesque fascination and there’s where a part of the magic of this book lies. Richard at the beginning was the typical dissatisfied teenager who believed college could indeed change his miserable life into something lofty and yes, he does get what he wants when he befriends the rich kids he sought to emulate, but as Gaiman writes in The Sandman, ‘The price of getting what you want is getting what you once wanted’and perhaps this is exactly where the tragedy of the characters lie and why this book exerts a strange enchantment for the reader.

In fact, the novel’s obsession with beauty and decadence reminds me of ‘The Vampire Lestat’ where Anne Rice writes ‘Beauty is a Savage Garden’. Richard feels his fatal flaw is ‘a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs’, which pretty much sums up Tartt’s writing style that has a hypnotic elegance about it, compelling and evocative. A surreal, intoxicating read.

Image Credit
This review was previously published in Open Road Review and can be viewed here. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s