I feel under pressure a lot of the time to speed through my ever-growing to-read list, so it’s extremely rare that I want to savour a book so much that I put off finishing it. I did with The Secret History. Not only that, I found myself regularly stopping and re-reading paragraphs just to truly absorb the writing, putting the book down when I found myself beginning to skim-read and now I’ve finished this unique story I’m anticipating that nothing I read for a while is going to come close to it.
The Secret History is a strange, almost backwards thriller. It’s backwards in the way that from the prologue, we know exactly who dies and who is responsible for the murder. But for the rest of the book, Tartt weaves a deliciously dark, taut and complex narrative around this key event.
The narrator is Richard Papen, a relatively vapid, easily influenced character who manages to escape his hometown in California to attend Hampden College. Once there, he becomes fascinated with an especially elite group of students – Henry, Francis, Bunny, Charles and Camilla who study Classics under the exclusive tutoring of Julian Morrow. Being turned away on first application only accelerates Richard’s desire to join the selective group, and after a few convenient meetings, he’s in. Cue the onslaught of Ancient Greek, twisted friendships, murder and lots of alcohol.
When I first approached this book, I was a tad intimidated. It has quite quickly achieved a semi-modern-classic status and, after the initial intriguing prologue, we are given some pretty dull, irrelevant background into Richard’s life, followed by a mini-crash-course in Classics. During the first 50 pages I wondered if I was going to be able to stick at it and if the fact that I knew absolutely nothing about Classics or Ancient Greek was going to hinder my reading experience. If anyone else experiences these qualms when beginning this book – I would advise them to just press on. Because after the first couple of chapters I was utterly hooked, and it didn’t let up until the very end of the novel.
It’s not just about classics; Tartt spans a myriad of far-reaching themes within the 600 pages of this novel, from extreme beauty to sheer terror – sometimes both at the same time; “Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.” But at its core is relationships and secrets. Richard is young, he has left his home town for the first time and is delighted to have been accepted into this elite group of individuals, to share in their ups and downs – so much that he is somewhat blind to the reality of their actions and the consequences they have.
The author wonderfully draws the reader into the intriguing world of these strange, charismatic individuals; she had me hooked on every word and so absorbed in their world that it was only occasionally I sat back and contemplated how ridiculous it all was. Which, of course, it is. From their overtly pretentious mannerisms which felt more like 1930s Britain than 1980s America to me, to the simmering dramas and murderous intent – it’s all a little over the top.
But I think that’s the point. Tartt isn’t encouraging the reader to sympathise with the despicable individuals in this story but instead pointing fun at the elitist society; deftly illustrating how they could become so wrapped up in their own worlds that they don’t once stop to consider how they look or the real ramifications of their acts. And I was captivated by it.