5 reasons to read this fabulous novel
Definitely a candidate for this month’s ‘secrets and lies’ theme, Donna Tartt’s first novel is an extraordinary psychological mystery. It’s a classic ‘whydunnit’, beginning with the events of the murder – we know the site of the crime, the name of the victim, his relationship to his killers. We even hear the voice of one of them in the Prologue. You can listen to the author reading this opening sequence here.
Richard Papen, a young Classics student at an elite college in Vermont, is the narrator of The Secret History. In spite of the terrible mistakes and ugly deeds that he commits in the name of friendship, he is a sympathetic and not unlikeable character. His voice is critical to Tartt’s story; she performs a delicate balancing act between eliciting and withholding sympathy and understanding for her characters.
Winter in Vermont: dark pine trees, heavy snow, an isolated college campus. The group of students who form the main cast of characters is a wealthy one, with access to privileged settings like the old country mansion where much of the story unfolds. In contrast to this is the dense forest and the wild, snow-covered ravines – the presence of dangerously unpredictable nature that influences the plot and themes of the novel.
Donna Tartt is a talented writer, and her flowing style is a pleasure to read; The Secret History has deservedly been republished in Penguin Modern Classics. In particular, she has a gift for capturing emotion and motivation with a few well-chosen words. Here is Richard, confronting the terrible truth about the effects of the crime that was meant to liberate him:
I suppose at one time in my life I might have had a number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.
The meanings behind the enthralling plot and clever writing of The Secret History are powerful ones. The brazen over-confidence and extreme selfishness of privileged youth; the ambiguous power of classical knowledge in the wrong hands; the thin line between civilization and total savagery. The vulnerability of the follower to life’s natural leaders is an important issue: Richard would not have committed murder without the influence of his charismatic friends, they would not have been able to act without his collusion.