Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.
The Secret History is every bit the dark and delicious read the synopsis suggests and more. The story follows six college students; Richard, Henry, Francis, Camilla, Charles and Bunny, each part of an elusive group of students tutored in Greek by the enigmatic Julian Morrow. Through the course of these lessons they translate ancient texts, converse in Greek and develop a completely different way of thinking and navigating their lives. But this comes at a price, when a shocking turn of events leads to the death of one of their own, and the group struggle to deal with the fallout.
“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.”
I loved the atmospheric nature of this novel and how Donna Tartt so skilfully maintains this tone throughout to such significant effect. While I’ve certainly never been to an elite New England college in the mid 80’s, Tartts writing totally transported me there and was so believable. From the cold, crisp mornings she depicts to the artful and carefully considered choices in clothing, it creates such a unique aesthetic or palette for the novel. Since finishing the novel I’ve been looking all over the internet for all things TSH related and there are an abundance of moodboards so if you wanted some visual representations of the novel then definitely go check those out.
As well as the unique atmosphere and tone, I loved the emphasis on the classics and specifically Greek. I found it fitting that the plot follows the structure of a Greek tragedy in certain regards with the crux of the plot being a murder, after which everything unravels and nothing can be redeemed from there. Well it’s certainly not the most hopeful of novels but it poses some very interesting questions about morality and ethics and the consequences of going down such a path. It makes for such a unique reading experience and one I haven’t had before.
“Some things are too terrible to grasp at once. Other things – naked, sputtering, indelible in their horror – are too terrible to really grasp ever at all. It is only later, in solitude, in memory that the realization dawns: when the ashes are cold; when the mourners have departed; when one looks around and finds oneself – quite to one’s surprise – in an entirely different world.”
While my college experience was vastly different to the insular world that Tartt portrays within the novel, I found I could still connect with this part of the novel. I could relate so intensely to the feeling of being an outsider which Richard experiences when he first arrives at Hampden and his internal battle of doubt and bewilderment at this new world he finds himself in. It’s such a unique and strange experience being in college / university and feeling so free to make choices and reinvent yourself but at the same time still hemmed in. Perhaps it is this very paradox which leads Richard to throw himself head first into the intrigue and escape from the banal, which the group provides.
In terms of the characters in the novel, I liked that each of them are so complex and by any standards pretty horrible people, and even at the conclusion of the novel, we’re still left not quite knowing who they are. While usually this would frustrate me, Tartt’s character work is her biggest strength and having read The Goldfinch already I’m used to not having all the answers but still loving the hell out of the story anyway. Henry Winter is the de facto leader of the group, highly intelligent and disciplined, as well as cooly handsome and unbothered by all the usual concerns of his peers, choosing instead to live according to the morals and ideals of the ancients. Francis Abernathy is an expressive young man, who has a family fortune to fall back on and has lived a pretty charmed existence thus far, but is subject to cruel remarks at the hands of Bunny and others due to his sexuality. Camilla and Charles Macaulay are twins, both good looking and charming, unobtrusive at first but with much more going beneath the surface. Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran is the catalyst for the changes in the novel and to put it mildly, he’s pretty much an asshole, he flashes between bouts of unjust cruelty towards those around him and affecting a boyish and harmless quality which masks this mean streak.
I loved the retrospective nature of the story and how the events of the novel are in the past for the narrator; Richard. The fact that all the events in the story that we’re following so intently, have happened in the past and the account is coming from the distance of years struck me as so profound and adds this sense of wistfulness and longing. This filter of memory and the very act of remembering also adds something indescribably sad to the nature of the story, as well as reaffirming how unreliable of a narrator Richard is.
“I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Secret History and indulging in Donna Tartts unique and compelling writing and getting a taste for the dark academia sub genre. I would recommend this to fans of more drawn out mystery novels with complex characters and evocative prose, this novel isn’t for every reader but I believe every one should give it a chance.
Until next time,