The Secret History
Price: RRP £8.99 but available online for around £6 as paperback or an ebook.
Plot Summary: A young man, Richard Papen makes friends with some elite classics students at his university who open up his world to new ideas as he becomes embroiled in their affairs.
Review: Donna Tartt writes The Secret History in a romantic style with plenty of vivid imagery creating a dreamlike picture of Vermont, the novel’s setting, in the reader’s mind. The novel is narrated by its central character Richard Papen, a young man who is dissatisfied with his life in California and moves to Vermont to study at university. Tartt creates suspense from the beginning when she reveals the central event of the novel is the murder of Bunny leaving the reader itching to discover why he was killed and what happens in the aftermath of his death. Richard’s narrative answers these questions for the reader beginning with his move to Vermont. Richard applies to study Ancient Greek at the university in Vermont but is rejected because the Professor, Julian, only selects a handful of elite students to attend his classic classes. Richard aspires to be like this group of students noting their beauty and apparent wealth as well as intelligence. Richard’s admiration of his fellow students is convincing for anyone who lacks confidence or has found themselves in a new environment and is particularly relevant for anyone who is studying at university or remembers this time in their life well. Richard integrates himself into the group after successfully helping them with an Ancient Greek translation which proves his ability. The group help Richard join Julian’s classic class. The group of friends is made up by; the extremely intelligent Henry, Julian’s favourite student. Francis, whose family are from the upper classes of society. Camilla, the only girl in the group who is quite yet alluring and her twin brother Charles, the pair are very secretive. Finally, the last member of the group is Edmund or Bunny who is the least intelligent of the group and is characterised as rather a buffoon and whose death the novel centres around. Tartt builds up detailed descriptions of each character through the eyes of Richard whose descriptions as an outsider are informative and become more in-depth and biased as he builds up relationships with each character. The first part of the novel focuses on Richard’s integration into the group although he principally remains on the periphery of the group. Richard is bemused by the relationship between Henry and Bunny as they seemed to him to be polar opposites and is particularly shocked when he learns that the pair are going to spend the winter holidays together in Italy. Richard stays in Vermont for the holiday and becomes seriously ill from the accommodation he is living in. Richard is rescued when Henry who has returned home early from Italy discovers him. Richard notes the changed group dynamics following the return from the holiday and eventually learns the truth as he becomes more involved with the group. The group had tried to emulate an ancient pagan ritual which resulted in Henry killing a local farmer by mistake. During the trip to Italy Bunny, who had been excluded from the event, learns that Henry committed the murder and threatens to tell the police. Richard narrates the increasing nature of Bunny’s threats and it is here that Tartt’s characterisation is so wonderful because the reader is too irritated by the arrogant behaviour that Bunny displays so increasing throughout the novel to feel sorry for him when he dies. The group including Richard plot to kill Bunny and succeed in doing so, expecting him to merely be reported missing but events do not go to plan. Other students on campus become concerned for Bunny’s welfare and they start searching for him. Bunny is eventually found and the group being to splinter as tensions rise over the impending police questioning. Henry and Camilla become particularly close which isolates Charles and makes him seem like a possible threat to the group as he takes up drinking heavily. Julian learns of the events that occurred and leaves unannounced. Henry is left feeling betrayed. The events come to a climax as the novel draws to a close when Charles storms into Camilla and Henry’s hotel room with a gun. Francis and Richard try to help subdue Charles but he shoots Richard in the stomach. To cover up for Charles and out of the desperation Henry feels at Julian’s departure Henry shoots himself. It is here that the book loses some of the grip it has on the reader as the events are rushed and lack some of the earlier attention to detail that so wonderfully draw you in. However, this is not to say that the ending leaves the reader feeling dissatisfied. The narrative draws to a close with an update on the lives of the group all of whom have failed to achieve much with their lives and feel hopeless. Richard himself finishes a degree in a different subject unlike the rest of the group but he too does not find happiness. Richard loves Camilla but she does not requite this love and he longs for the days when the group was all together. Tartt’s narrative draws parallels to The Great Gatsby with its romantic descriptions, lost narrator and hopeless ending with characters who elude justice and is equally as brilliant. Where Tartt differs though is that she does not leave the reader with an impression of dislike for her characters but rather a pity at the hopelessness that is left behind. Tartt deals with differing themes of sexuality, coming of age and belonging which make the novel perfect for anyone in their late teens and early twenties. This is not to say that anyone older could not appreciate it given the skilful narrative and convincing plot it is a novel which can be treasured by all. I would strongly recommend you try reading it. The novel may be short but it leaves a long-lasting impression.
Opinion: I loved reading The Secret History and cannot wait to read Tartt’s other novels.