Some authors manage to make a big impact, despite having a relatively small body of work. Harper Lee is one, Gillian Flynn is another – and, of course, Donna Tartt. Her debut novel, The Secret History, was first published back in 1992, and she’s only published two other books since then. And yet, she’s manage to define a niche genre (dark academia), top best-seller lists, win awards, and win herself a legion of fans around the world.
The Secret History is a campus novel, set at a fictional(ish) elite liberal arts college in New England. I say “ish” because Tartt based it on Bennington College, where she was a student in the ’80s. (She even dedicates the novel to fellow student Bret Easton Ellis.) The story follows six classics students, who become increasingly isolated from the rest of the school community as they deal with the fall-out of a murder.
I suppose you could make an argument that anything else I say about The Secret History could constitute a “spoiler”… but really, I don’t care. It’s an iconic 30-year-old novel. Deal with it.
Besides, Tartt gives a lot away up front. The Prologue to The Secret History is a masterpiece – up there with the opening chapter of Lolita. In it, Tartt reveals that Bunny, one of the students, is dead, but the full circumstances of his death are only hinted at in the vaguest terms. It’s a hell of an opener, and it compels you to read on immediately.
What follows is a kind of inverted detective story, where the events around Bunny’s murder are laid out in chronological order, with tantalising clues about what’s to come sprinkled throughout the narrative. The narrator, Richard, is an outsider, with a very different background to the others (he’s working-class California to their old-money East Coast). He’s as enthralled by the classics teacher, Julian, as the rest of them, but still new enough to question some of the odd behaviours and habits that they all exhibit.
Richard notices that, as close as the classics students are, they seem to be keeping secrets – from him, and from each other. He’s baffled by, for instance, Henry’s willingness to foot the bill for Bunny’s extravagant tastes. Charles and Camilla seem too close, even for twins. Francis is clearly gay, but no one says or does anything to acknowledge it. All of them show up with strange injuries, hide things in closets, carry on private conversations in Greek. What the heck is up with that?
You can see how I found myself gripped by The Secret History. Something is going on in this story, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it! Tartt’s prose is exquisitely detailed, with startling revelations and intriguing mysteries. By about a third of the way through, I was pretty sure I could see where it was all going, but she still managed to weave in a couple of surprises. The tension was almost too much at times – I gave myself a headache from clenching my teeth, more than once. Plus, the chapters are looooooooong, which made it difficult to take a break. Even at 500+ pages, the temptation to read the whole thing in one sitting is real.
In the hands of a lesser writer, The Secret History would have been beyond the pale. But Tartt is convincing, too convincing, and you’ll find yourself drawn in unquestioningly as the story unfolds. Michiko Kakutani, the legendary New York Times book reviewer, put it perfectly: “It is a measure of Ms. Tartt’s complete assurance and skill as a writer that these shocking, melodramatic events are made to seem plausible to the reader as well. The bacchanal, the plotting of Bunny’s murder, the implication that Henry may in fact be Dionysus or the Devil himself: such seemingly preposterous notions are enfolded, through Ms. Tartt’s supple, decorous prose, into the texture of everyday student life, a familiar, recognizable life of exams, parties and classes.”
All the way through, I kept thinking back to Crime And Punishment. The Secret History is essentially the same story, but brought forward into the late 20th century, to All American academia. I loved Dostoyevsky’s psychological drama, too, so I guess I just have a thing for books about conflicted murderers.
The trigger warnings may seem obvious: violence, murder, death, and so on. But I also want to give a heads up for alcoholism, incest, epithets – and, of course, a couple of dog deaths 🙁 The first comes early and very brief (less than one paragraph), but the second is violent and cruel and made me feel sick.
In the end, The Secret History is as good as everyone says it is. Its enduring popularity is entirely deserved. I’ll be joining the ranks of Donna Tartt fans, hanging desperately onto hope that a new novel is coming from her very, very soon – she’s past due!
My favourite Amazon reviews of The Secret History:
- “If you wanna read a book that is close to 600 pages that is 99% rich whiney kids drinking heavily and complaining about their feelings, then this is the book for you.” – eric Beheler
- “I can’t believe Jenna Bush Hager said this book was a pillar of literature. It is more like a cement block that all copies of this book should be tied to and thrown overboard. The author drones on and on about 5 college students who kill a fellow student and then 1.) drink 2.) smoke 3.) eat 4.) take baths and 5.) wear suits and ties and 6.) talk ad nauseum about what they have done. I can’t even figure out what decade it is set in.” – Bluetooth Rookie
- “The most boring read of my life, and I’m a damn lawyer. I’ve read bankruptcy statutes with more zest.” – Jaye Lindsay
- “I bought this book nearly 25 years ago and just got around to reading it. I wonder if it’s too late to get my money back?” – Shatterbox