The Secret History by Donna Tartt
It is late summer in Vermont in the 1980s and Richard Papen has just moved to the East Coast from California to study at the liberal arts college Hampden. Eager to leave behind his working-class background and his father’s gas station and infatuated by the sophistication and mystery the college emanates, he wants to study the Classics. The issue is there is only one teacher for ancient Greek and Julian Morrow refuses to teach anyone but a select few. Luckily, Richard manages to solve a Greek problem for the group as he encounters them in the library and is admitted as the sixth student under Morrow’s tutelage. He is fascinated by the others in the group: Henry Winter, a reserved genius who journals in Latin; Francis Abernathy, wealthy and charming and whose family owns a mansion not far from campus; the orphaned twins Camilla and Charles MacCauley; and, finally, Bunny Corcoran, the son of wealthy parents, who somehow always needs to borrow money, who is easy going but also has a talent for irritating his friends – and of course he will not survive the novel. This is not a spoiler, as we are told about Bunny’s murder in the prologue.
“I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime.”
Swept away by Julian’s eccentrics and charisma, his students cut themselves off from the rest of the college community. Slowly, Richard finds his footing in the group, they start inviting him to their weekend trips to Francis’ country house. But he can’t entirely shake the feeling that the others are keeping something from him. Not just their studies, but their lives become increasingly influenced by the Greek world they learn about. They become enthralled by the idea of the bacchanal – a ritual leading to altered psychic states. Behind Richard’s back, the others try to reach this state, and finally they succeed. But as a man is killed, their lives turn upside down and their minds unravel under the weight of what they have done.
“Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.”
The Secret History felt like he perfect September read. It transports you right into the golden-red scenery of autumnal Vermont and into the world of academia, filled as it is with Greek and Latin, both the languages and the philosophies. One review called the novel “the thinking person’s thriller” and that summarises it nicely. Tartt’s book feels incredibly intellectual without ever being difficult to read or pretentious and patronising. The characters, though morally ambigious to say the least, are incredibly compelling and being invited into their psychological world is an absolute treat.
“What we did was terrible, but still I don't think any of us were bad, exactly; chalk it up to weakness on my part, hubris on Henry’s, too much Greek prose composition – whatever you like.”
The Secret History is a crime story without the “whodunnit” element, and I love it for that. Tartt has constructed it brilliantly, and beginning with the murder is just one aspect of that. Much of the book reads like a Greek tragedy in a contemporary setting and I was completely absorbed into its world. While reading I regularly thought the story could be told in fewer pages (my edition has 600) but I didn’t want it to be any shorter. Somehow, Tartt has written a novel that might not be the perfect book, but is still the perfect read. I am already looking forward to re-reading it!