Book Review: Donna Tartt's The Secret History


Sometimes the coincidence does the trick. While reviewing new books released this March, I came across the description of a murder mystery by Peter Swanson titled Eight Perfect Murders. The plot included never disclosed perfect murders written by other eight authors. The last one mentioned was staring reproachfully at me from my book shelf where I’ve put it nearly ten years ago. It was Donna Tartt’s first novel The Secret History.

Though this title has been before my eyes for a decade, my acquaintance with the literary works of Donna Tartt began with The Goldfinch, which I still consider one of my favourite books. It’s difficult to foretell now, how it would have affected my reading, if I had picked The Secret History first. But it’s better later than never, as the latter has proven to be a swallow of genuine literature in the ocean of modern amateur scribblers.

I wasn’t the first to collate this novel with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. There’s the crime, there’s the suffering of the guilty part, however the characters of The Secret History actually escape the punishment, though “walking through it all was one thing; walking away, unfortunately, has proved to be quite another.”

“This is the only story I will ever be able to tell”, confesses the narrator Richard on the first page of the book. The writer doesn’t keep the common principle of story-telling, which usually leads the reader step by step to the climax by constantly enhancing the notion of “something bad is about to happen”. The first two paragraphs into the novel offer a clear vision of this “something bad” that has already happened. So there’s no need to worry who’s going to be killed. The more important question is why.

The story takes place at the imaginary Hampden College in Vermont. Richard, a scholarship student from California, trying to escape his miserable life in his uneducated blue-collar family who is neither supporting, nor loving, drops his medical studies and turns to studying Greek and classics. There he finds himself in a secluded circle of five other students led by a brilliant but rather strange professor Julian. The other students come from wealthy families, so Richard re-invents his past on the Western Coast to minimize this upbringing gap and join the club.

The leader of the pack is Henry, a real erudite but a cruel manipulator, Francis is an excitable and seductive rich young man, Charles and Camilla are adorable and inseparable twins, and Bunny, a black sheep, coming from a wealthy family but actually broke and constantly borrowing money from others. Obsessed with Greek mythology and the bacchanal highly worshiped by their teacher, Henry, Francis Camilla and Charles go an extra mile to perform a Dionysian rite and face Dionysus himself. Only it’s a poor farmer they meet and brutally murder.

This murder would have slipped unnoticed, only if Bunny had not looked it up in the local newspaper and tied the knots. But he’d chosen the wrong way to deal with it – he started blackmailing his friends and turning them into milking cows, therefore signing his own death sentence. What happened after Bunny went down the cliff has changed the lives of the whole pack forever.

The whole story is told from Richard’s perspective, his interpretations, observations and doubts. He himself is a complicated guy, eager to fit, easy to manipulate but with no believe in love. “If I learned one thing in my short sad life, it is that that particular platitude is a lie. Love doesn’t conquer everything. And whoever thinks it does is a fool”, Richard denies the old Latin saying that love conquers everything. Thus, despite the story he is telling is heartbreaking, it’s being conveyed by a person privy of those great emotions so explicitly analyzed in Greek tragedies that Richard studies with such an enthusiasm.

The knowledge of Greek literature and art by the writer is more than profound. This is one of those novels that not only entertains but educates, too. However, the most precious diamond of the book is its literary language. This is what I mean when I say “I am reading a real book”. While The Goldfinch was a floating poetry, The Secret History is an enchanting prose where every paragraph and every page is an utter pleasure, oozing into your brain like drops of morphine, but instead of carrying you away, it opens the doors into the realms of word power. This is that rare moment when you perceive the true purpose of literature.

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