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R&R 137 | The Secret History

I've been writing everywhere now that I decided to look at this project as something I'm doing completely and unapologetically for myself. Nonetheless, I do wish to sincerely thank those of you who've been keeping track of this project and site, who've supported me and who've tried to keep me going. Thank you guys. And now without further ado: 

Donna Tartt
The Secret History
First published in: 1992
This edition: First Vintage Contemporaries edition, 2004
ISBN: 1-4000-3170-0
Genre: psychological thriller (mostly)
Pages: 559
Cover photography by Alinary / Art Resource NY; cover design by Barbara de Wilde and Chip Kidd


For my first review in many, many months I've chosen a book that I've read a while ago, a book that was buzzed about a lot when it was first published. That buzz is no more. But one of the things I personally like about my taste in books, is that I don't go along with fads. I don't always read “what everyone else is reading”, I don't keep track of what's new and what's hot. Sure, at times I will get curious and read and review new books (I just had to do FIFTY SHADES, obviously), and I can get really excited about upcoming new material from favorite authors… but to me, any unread book is a new book, and it's worthy of reviewing just as much as recently published work.

THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt is a book I read earlier on during this project, but it's always stayed with me. I read Tartt's THE LITTLE FRIEND before this one, and I was already very impressed with the author's ability to set a haunting, eerie, foreshadowing mood. But THE LITTLE FRIEND wasn't what I expected it to be; I'd decided to read thrillers for a month, and in the spirit of Themed Reading had hoped it would be more of a plot-driven thriller. It ended up being good in different ways; it had that beautiful haunting undertone throughout. But it wasn't what I wanted at the time. But it did inspire me to get a copy of THE SECRET HISTORY, which did turn out to have that eerie mystery, but with a bit of a faster plot to it, which really takes off after only a few chapters.

What I love about reading thrillers is "helping" to solve the who- and/or whydunits, but I prefer it if it isn't too corny, except of course in case of comedy and satire. Much like in THE LITTLE FRIEND, Tartt drops subtle hints and omens throughout the book, but whereas THE LITTLE FRIEND ended up in a different direction from my expectations, picking up on bits and pieces in THE SECRET HISTORY did prove to be more rewarding for a wannabe detective like yours truly.

THE SECRET HISTORY is a whydunit: a thriller in which the focus of the mystery is on motive, not on the culprit's identity. We instantly know someone dies: our narrator, scholarship student Richard Papen, informs us of the death of Edmund "Bunny" Corcoran on the very first page. The how and why of it, that will have to wait.

First Richard brings us to Hampden College, Vermont, where he studies the classics, eagerly hoping to be included in Professor Julian Morrow's elite class consisting of a small clique of eccentric and too-smart-for-their-own-good students from privileged backgrounds. After being rejected, however, Richard still hangs around, hoping to impress the other students, eventually gaining their approval when he helps them solve a problem, thus proving his worth and earning a spot in Julian's class after all. The group collectively worship Julian and his moral-less teachings to a point of obsession, and one evening while under the influence of both alcohol and their mentor, things go horribly, irreversibly, devastatingly wrong…

The clique, that's what it's all about. My first impression of the group of students is that they are all incredibly intelligent. Knowing what you know right off the bat – that someone dies – it also is clear immediately that this will be their undoing: they actually feel like they are above the laws of man and nature alike. The reader is wary; I for example found myself instantly prejudiced against the students. I disliked them and found them to be arrogant. And that's entirely the point.

I never fully trusted our narrator, and he has himself to thank for it. His background embarrasses him, and while at Hampden college Richard invents a different version of himself, a more glamorous and wealthy version, in hopes to impress the others. He does this with ease, nonchalantly, without regard for consequences. For instance, he spends all his money on expensive clothes, and proceeds to almost freeze to death in the only living arrangements he can now afford: an “apartment” without heating, but with a hole in the wall. His expensive clothes won't keep him warm.
It foreshadows the bigger, similar storyline ahead: secrets and lies… and dramatic consequences.

Despite all of his lies Richard still seems to be relatively untarnished and naïve. Shame is what motivates him, and the only person affected by and seriously hurt because of his lies is Richard himself. I sure as hell never trusted the others. Not one iota, so to speak. Reading this book was interesting in itself, as I never quite knew whom to trust, and it got to be a little bit nervewracking at times.

The plot line in itself could be considered to be unbelievable: how is it that these super intelligent (and you would think rational) students collectively lose all sense of reality because they are so mesmerized by just the one person? It could also be argued that the consequences are farfetched as well. But Tartt gets away with it because, for one, the psychology behind it is valid. The behaviors and motivations in THE SECRET HISTORY are reminiscent of cults.

Furthermore, it helps that Tartt's writing skills are off the charts, which to me was very evident from the start, when she began to set the scene: the (initially) idyllic college, where bookish students burn their way through subjects like philosophy, Greek and Roman mythology and history… a timeless place almost. (I felt the book could be set in any decade really, whether it's the 20's or the 80's. I marveled at this. You don't often find a timeless book these days.) Tartt was a student when she started writing this book, and it her intelligence and imagination both showed. I felt enveloped in the atmosphere.

It's quite a story, then, but Tartt makes it work, while always making clear, despite if and how justifiable a motive might be, that secrets and lies will break you eventually – and that nothing is certain. For our characters, these words may ring empty. But the message certainly comes across to readers of this book. Which is why I haven't forgotten THE SECRET HISTORY, and probably never will.

28/11/2013. On a final note before publishing this post, I do intend to give this site a new layout, something a bit cleaner and to the point. So when the site looks a bit messy in the next few weeks: it's not you. It's me.