Reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt is like drinking black coffee and smoking a cigarette at a hotel bar while a well-dressed stranger recounts the tragedy of their New England college experience in an academic cult of Greek scholars. It delivers you something bold, dark, and electrifying that washes down your throat with a sophisticated melancholy, while also stimulating you with a smoky, lonely buzz which sobers the heart and leaves you with exquisite yearning; as soon as you’re done with your first cup and cig, you immediately reach for the next to begin the addicting cycle again as hours pass and the stranger talks on and on.
The narrator of our story is a gentleman named Richard, and he begins The Secret History with a shocking confession: we pushed Bunny off a ledge in the woods and left him for dead in the ravine. Richard uses the prologue to explain that he and his colleagues didn’t mean for Bunny to be missing, but for ten days, he lay in that ravine undiscovered, beneath blankets of unseasonably late snow. Grimly, Richard reflects that this is now the only story he can ever bear to tell—and, hooked by this blatant admission, the reader desperately wonders, Why did they kill this “Bunny”?
Chapter One begins with Richard’s musings on “the fatal flaw”: he writes, “Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs” (p. 5) He confides that he has always liked to capture reality through an aesthetic filter. His compulsion is to doctor the truth, manipulating it towards some beauteous ideal and as the book progresses, we see that conveyed in the way that Richard casually lies about his origins. At Hampden College in Vermont, when Richard speaks to others about his life growing up in California, he never mentions that his father runs a gas station nor that his mother answers phones at a factory; rather, he orates his “fictive childhood” of “orange groves and dissolute, charming show-biz parents” (p. 5). His desire for beauty comes at the price of his moral integrity, and he maintains his lies even in the face of others’ doubts.
A scheduling dilemma arises in his first week at Hampden: Richard wants to major in Greek, but in a rather unprecedented situation, the singular Greek teacher, Julian Morrow, only accepts five students into his class and teaches practically every class those students take. All five positions are full, and although Richard has prior education in Greek, he is turned away from the exclusive program.
Because of their removed nature from the rest of Hampden’s student body, the five Greek students evolve in Richard’s mind, and from afar he studies their poised, scholarly nature and old-fashioned, quirky routines. Their distance and mysterious nature excite Richard’s fixated imagination. During his first encounter with the group at the campus library, he writes, “It was if the characters in a favorite painting, absorbed in their own concerns, had looked up out of the canvas and spoke to me” (pp. 21-22). With persistence and a carefully calibrated demeanor, Richard manages to persuade Julian to accept him as a sixth student, and thus, Richard joins their removed society.
Its imagery is vivid and moody, and the first hundred pages warmly encapsulate the autumnal experience in eastern United States:
“The sun was low, burning gold through the trees, casting our shadows before us on the ground, long and distorted. We walked for a long time without saying anything. The air was musty with far-off bonfires, sharp with the edge of a twilight chill. There was no noise but the crunch of our shoes on the gravel path, the whistle of wind in the pines; I was sleepy and my head hurt and there was something not quite real about any of it, something like a dream. I felt that at any moment I might start, my head on a pile of books at my desk, and find myself in a darkening room, alone.”Page 68
For me, the beginning of this novel conjured the melancholy mood of a displaced Salinger character such as Holden in The Catcher in the Rye or the candor for academics ignited in a work like Dead Poets Society. However, as the autumn setting transitions to winter and some darker atmosphere, the novel slinks into the shadows to lick its wounds and hunker down for a long and snowy winter, and into an even less-hopeful spring.
Brilliantly eerie, one of Julian’s first lectures foreshadows the themes of the novel. In a discussion about the dangers of an ordered civilization repressing its irrational animal instinct, the following conversation transpires:
“Death is the mother of beauty,” said Henry.
“And what is beauty?”
“Well said,” said Julian. “Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.”Page 41
As the reader, we know that these concepts hint at what is to happen, but we wonder, What could it be? It is as if we are wandering through a fog which obscures the horizon, yet we know we must tread carefully, nerves attuned and alert.
This novel is quite a slow-burner, yet tension is constantly mounting. The narration is expert—although in the view of first-person, Richard is an academic, so we experience the poised and restrained tone of a narrator poignantly reflecting. And even more expert, although Richard delivers precisely what transpired, we do not see what is truly happening behind the scenes until it dawns on him, in time, as well. In this way, we are truly able to experience how Richard became so inundated in the group of the Greek students, how he was so easily able to sweep away any definite sense of morality in order to adhere to the group’s ambiguous “best interest.” Because he is so indoctrinated within their mini-society and kept blind about just the right things, it is shocking how he can be steered in just the right direction to do the wrong thing.
While there were many elements of this book I was able to appreciate, there are, I’m sure, countless other allusions which went over my head, as I know little of Latin or Greek literature or language, of which the characters are so elaborately educated. In searching Donna Tartt’s own words about this book, I discovered that she began writing it while she was attending college in Vermont, and it wasn’t until some years later and much work that she finally managed to conclude the manuscript and sell it to a publisher as her debut novel.
In reflecting on this book’s overarching elements, I found myself drawing likenesses between it and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Richard’s an unreliable narrator, much like the The Great Gatsby’s narrator Nick Carraway. In the latter, Nick begins the novel by confessing that some years have transpired since the book’s events, and while he will do his best to recall them accurately, he is still subject to bias in that he truly did admire Gatsby, even after everything was said and done. Similarly, Richard narrates The Secret History seven years after the novel’s events and begins with his admission of his “fatal flaw” being a fixation on beauty and the elegantly contrived and how the upcoming story is one of particular preoccupation for him. The characters in The Great Gatsby are wealthy, white, young adults who enjoy partying and have little regard for consequence, until events inadvertently go awry and result in casualties. Although significantly more academic in nature, the characters in The Secret History are wealthy, white, entitled youth who spend their leisure time roaming about a mansion, getting absolutely drunk, and feeling as though they can do whatever they want—even when there are casualties. In the end, both novels feature characters with “larger than life” personas, carefully articulated facades that present to the world a contrived notion of their identity, and how from all this, there may be some deadly consequences.
This is not to say that Donna Tartt set out to mimic The Great Gatsby, nor that she was even influenced or inspired by it, but for my own satisfaction of sketching a literary parallel. More likely, Tartt was influenced by classics like Dostoevsky; however I have no experience reading these books and have spent a great deal of my own academic career analyzing The Great Gatsby. And where Fitzgerald’s classic is ambiguous and brief, Tartt’s is thorough and lengthy.
Certainly, while this book is many things, it’s not a book that boasts diversity—all of the characters are privileged and white, and only one or two main characters are even women. I also noted the following trigger and content warnings: Drug and alcohol abuse, heavy use of tobacco, murder, minor animal abuse, one rape fantasy, suicide, homophobic speech, and Islamophobic speech.
While this book, to me, is darkly engaging and gorgeously crafted, it is also quite challenging. The writing is elaborate and rambling, and the emotions it evokes are anxious and agitated. It is no casual reverie, but rather a beast quite rewarding to slay. Because of this, I think that some readers may not enjoy it like I have; however, I cannot blame anyone for this. I recommend this book highly if this genre speaks to you, and if you have read this entire review, then I believe you will have rather instinctual understanding of whether or not you would like reading The Secret History. Ultimately, I rated it 5/5 stars because I think it is a genius story written excellently.
Reviewer’s Note: This book review was written using the UK Penguin edition and therefore page numbers may differ.
Visit this page for more Book Reviews by Slanted Spines.