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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on June 11, 2013 by Nick Merrill

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The Secret History is a powerful, immensely atmospheric novel. It’s a story of corruption in paradise, of intellectualized debauchery. It’s set in Bennington facsimile Hampden college, where narrator Richard Papen hopes to transcend his mundane, middle class childhood. He meets, and slowly joins, a group of elitist classics students. They dress well, spurn the college’s general culture, and study almost exclusively under the charismatic Julian.

Though lengthy and descriptive, The Secret History is thoroughly compelling. Tartt’s prose is lush but not overly ornate. Her details never feel extraneous; she says what she needs to set the mood or convey a particular emotion. The novel begins with a flashfoward; we learn that the classics cabal murders Bunny Corcoran, one of their own. From then on, the book follows a linear narrative, though there’s an omnipresent sense of doom established by opening. The central conflict erupts when the group attempts to stage a Bacchanal.

In conventional mysteries, the final revelation ties everything together. But in The Secret History, which Tartt calls a ‘whydunit,’ there isn’t a central question to be answered. There’s the motivation behind Bunny’s murder, but it’s not particularly surprising. What makes the book a mystery is the way Tartt cultivates a delicious sense of ambiguity, making us continually aware, both implicitly and explicitly, of all that we don’t know. When Richard first learns of the classics students, he begins to study them from afar. They appear aloof and intelligent, but above all, enigmatic. Even once he joins their ranks, that sense of mystery remains. In slowly revealing their secrets, Tartt reveals the possibility of further unknown plots and demons. Richard is always in the dark; each of his answered questions pose at least two more.

Tartt’s characterization is the book’s weak link. Her prose is deftly evocative and her plot is meticulously controlled, but some of her characters lack definition. Richard is well drawn, but because he’s a passive, easily manipulated personality, he doesn’t stand out. The book’s centerpiece is Henry, the quiet, brilliant rich kid whose idea of a good time is translating Milton into Latin. Henry, despite his ordinary appearance, is a powerful, commanding presence. Tartt makes us feel his silences as well as his sentences. He’s coldly logical to a fault; naturally, he orchestrates the murder. The aforementioned ambiguity is most relevant concerning Henry. He’s often kind and charitable to Henry, but there’s always the possibility of an ulterior motive.

Bunny himself is an affable blowhard. He’s a selfish, impulsive racist and bully. But he’s not one-dimensional. As detestable as he becomes, there’s a hint of something soft in him, something sensitive which may be lacking in the rest of the gang. Alongside Richard and Henry, he’s one of the book’s three complete characters. Debonair Francis and the twins Charles and Camilla, who complete the gang, never truly come alive as unique personalities.

Julian, whose charm creates the classics clique, is absent throughout most of the narrative. An early classroom scene establishes his whit and seductive philosophy, but mostly he’s a character who’s spoken of and rarely seen. When Henry describes him as a ‘divinity,’ we can’t fully understand his opinion because we’ve gotten so little exposure to the supposed deity. All of the book’s characters have unique appearances, but they’re not all easily distinguishable in terms of tendencies.

Despite the vagueness surrounding some of the book’s characters, Tartt does a brilliant job portraying the group as a unit. The classics students are tightly knit and exclusive. They occasionally interact with the broader campus culture, defined by raucous partying and drug use, but they mostly remain aloof, spending weekend’s in Francis’s country mansion. They drink excessively, they smoke excessively, and, with the exception of Henry, they work less than you’d expect. Many students view them as perverse. One states that they’re devil worshipers. But Richard’s initial attitude of fascination is transferred to the reader. Their unique, classy way of life has a definite appeal.

Tartt effortlessly describes the beauty of Hampden’s campus. Richard chooses to go there bases on its brochure. Early on, he confesses that his fatal flaw may be, “A morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.” The unstable relationship between the aesthetic and the moral is one of the book’s primary themes. Julian believes that true beauty is inherently terrifying. By his criteria, Bunny’s murder, expertly staged and set on a cliff, is beautiful. But it’s a disgusting act. Tartt succeeds in making us sympathetic towards her characters even as they delve further into heinousness, but she drives home the reprehensibility of their deed during the lengthy sequence where they go South for Bunny’s funeral and are forced to confront the emotional cost of what they’ve done.

Julian asks, “What could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely.” The Bacchanal itself, which precipitates the book’s most dramatic events,  is an effort to do exactly that. Most Hampden students, in getting riotously drunk on the weekends, are also attempting to lose control, to escape the confines of their conscious minds. But they’re doing it in a much cruder way, without bothering to intellectualize it with Greek philosophy.

The Secret History is a powerful book which never feels as lengthy as it is. It’s tragic and suspenseful. It transports you to a world you’d like to escape to, but only via fiction. The reality of it would be rather gloomy. But as captured by Tartt, it’s delicious. I realize that poor characterization is a recurring criticism in my reviews, but it’s once again relevant here. Perhaps it’s just such a hard thing to get right. But overall, Tartt’s prose and plotting make The Secret History a remarkable read.

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