In a previous post I listed The Secret History by Donna Tartt as one of the books I wanted to read over the summer. I also said, I was approaching it with some apprehension. However with some down time recently, I felt the time was right to start on a book that I thought might need and deserve my undivided attention. How right I was. I finished this some days ago, but still it lingers with me. The characters, the events and the conclusion keep vying for attention as I mull it over. I felt immediately bereft after finishing it and briefly considered going straight to the library to pick up ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt. In anticipation of this I had checked that our local library had it in stock just the day before. As it happens I didn’t do that, thinking it would be better to spend time slowly ‘coming down’ from ‘The Secret History’
I have thought a lot about this review and don’t quite know where to start with it. The Secret History is a book of such high quality I feel my limited vocabulary and understanding can barely do it justice. However this is a blog that reviews books. so review it I will.
The protagonist of the story is Richard a ‘working class’ boy from California who has gained a place at an elite college in New England. Richard adores the beauty of the college and there is a lovely passage early on which perfectly captures his joy at finally being where he believes he should be.
“…I was happy in those first days as really I’d never been before, roaming like a sleepwalker, stunned and drunk with beauty. A group of red-cheeked girls playing soccer, pony tails flying, their shouts and laughter carrying faintly over the velvety twi-lit field. Trees creaking with apples, fallen apples red on the grass beneath the heavy sweet smell of apples rotting on the ground and the steady thrumming of wasps around them. . Commons clock tower: ivied brick, white spire, spellbound in the hazy distance “
Soon after enrolling at Hampden College Richard is beguiled by a group of eccentric students of classics and their unusual professor. He manages to transfer from his English course onto this purely classics degree and is soon drawn into the world of this unusual and privileged group of students. This novel is woven around Greek mythology and philosophy. The students love of and ‘obsession’ with a particular greek myth results in them re-enacting an event which becomes the cause of future atrocities.
Richard has never met the like of this group before and it soon becomes clear to him that the world they inhabit is murkier than he could have imagined. Despite this he cannot resist their pull and Richard’s need to fit into this world results in him becoming intertwined in lives and events over which ultimately he has no control.
The book opens with Richard describing a murder, so that early on its very clear to the reader there will be a mystery to be solved.
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation……….It is difficult to believe that such an uproar took place over an event for which I was partially responsible, even more difficult to believe I could have walked through it – the cameras, the uniforms, the black crowds sprinkled over Mount Cataract like ants in a sugar bowl – without incurring a blink of suspicion. But walking through it all was one thing, walking away unfortunately has proved to be quite another, and though once I thought I had left that ravine forever on an April afternoon long ago, now I am not so sure.”
Despite the shock of the opening, the novel continues at a steady pace, calmly and carefully building suspense. It is never rushed and information is revealed neither to quickly nor too slowly. As a reader I was very quickly drawn in and the more I read the more I wanted to read.
Using Richards voice to tell the story is a clever device. It gives a detailed insight into his thoughts and feelings around the events and his relationships with the other characters. The other characters are not always ‘easy’ people to be around. Mostly they come from a life of privilege and opportunity. They drink too much, to the point of alcoholism, their behaviour is sometimes debauched and often selfish and self seeking. Despite this uneasiness I didn’t really dislike them, even at their worst I could find sympathy. I don’t know how Donna Tartt does it but she manages to develop the story and the character of Bunny so that his ultimate demise is an almost acceptable and appropriate action.
The is also very much a college story. It is about the freedom of youth where days and nights blend into one. Where one can talk all night and sleep all day, and where feelings and experiences are particularly acute and where deep relationships are formed and nurtured.
There were so many things I loved about this novel but none more than Tartt’s style of writing and her clever use of words which were so often really beautiful to read. There are sentences which I could read over and over. I particular love this writing where Richard is describing how he feels during one of his typically insomniac nights
“I got out of bed and sat by the window. My heartbeat trembled in my fingertips. Outside the black panes, past my ghost in the glass (why so pale and wan fond lover?) I heard the wind in the trees, felt the hills crowding around me in the dark”
If you’ve made it this far well done, I could wax lyrical about how good this book is for much longer. but be assured I won’t. All I really want to say is, if you possibly can get a copy of this, devote yourself to it and discover its bountiful pleasures for yourself.