08/05/14 - 'The Secret History' by Donna Tartt

It's been a while since I've done a proper book review on here and that's not for a lack of worthy reading material.  As anyone who has been following my progress on Goodreads will know, I am blazing my way through my '60 Books in 2014' challenge.  All the time spent waiting for or on trains has contributed to a huge increase in the amount of reading I get done.  Embarrassingly, the three years of my English degree were properly the years of my life that I read the least so this is proving to be a refreshing change and a lovely bonus of being a graduate.  The reason I haven't been consistently blogging about all the books I'm devouring is twofold: a) a lack of time in which to do so, and b) every book doesn't warrant a whole post of its own.  I'm currently toying with the idea of maybe doing a regular monthly feature, listing everything I've read while still reviewing particularly outstanding books on their own.  If that's something you think you might be interested in, please let me know in the comments!  Now, onto the matter in hand...

Every now and then, a book comes along which is such a revelation that it's nigh on impossible to stop thinking about it once you've put it down and you can't help but want to talk about it to anyone who will listen.  Well, dear readers, you are now going to be subject to the gushing my friends and family have endured as The Secret History well and truly falls into this category.  I got it a few Christmases ago as the best book my mum had read that year and since then, I'd made several attempts to read it but found myself only really able to commit to the over six hundred pages in the knowledge that my daily train journeys would be ample time to plough through them.  I'm so glad that I made the effort because once I got into the plot, it was an absolute page-turner with an almost ridiculous number of twists and turns.  Every time you think you've just about got a handle on a character or a situation, something will happen to pull the carpet out from under your feet and the whole thing becomes even more mysterious than it was to start with.

It's a bit of a tough book to describe, but I'll give it my best shot.  It's a murder mystery without the whodunnit element - the first page tells us the who, the rest of the book is finding out the why.  It's unashamedly intellectual (which is something I personally adore) and more than a little dark as the story wears on.  The plot follows a select and unusual group of undergraduate Classics students at a small Vermont university, all of whom turn out to have hidden depths and dark secrets.  Our narrator, Richard, is a new student who is - reluctantly at first - admitted to the Greek-speaking inner circle.  This consists of four boys and one girl, all of whom hold themselves aloof from the rest of the student body and are taught exclusively by one professor.  Even though Richard and his new friends aren't exactly the most likeable group of characters, there's something about the deep flaws in their personalities and the way that damage holds them together as a group which is somehow...if not endearing, then at least alluring.  Despite knowing what awful people they are, there's something of the pseudo-intellectual in me that craves company like them.  They lead increasingly decadent lives, constantly in search of beauty and a sort of primitive freedom that they believe only the most civilised and educated of people can achieve.  They drift around the dreary and distinctly unromantic New England 1980s campus in a way which gives even the most sordid elements of their tale a slightly ethereal and hypnotic quality.  Tartt's writing is beautifully crisp and considered.  The detail of her descriptions is wonderfully evocative and has an odd beauty that is often in a stark contrast to the reality of what is being described.

Tumblr summed it up pretty well.
It's difficult to judge the morals of this book.  While a lot of the acts detailed are utterly reprehensible and often taboo in modern society, there is a certain level of detachment in the narration which leads the reader to merely observe rather than judging and condemning.  In some ways, it's reminiscent of Nabokov's Lolita, another book in which morally corrupt actions seem to be judged less harshly by readers than one might expect. The group seem to feel this same detachment from their own actions, almost as though they are merely characters in one of the Greek epics they spend so much time studying.  It's a fascinating journey into what humans might do when pushed to what they believe is the limit, although I won't pretend that the ways in which the characters react to certain situations are entirely realistic.

For some reason, The Secret History reminded me a little of Alan Bennett's The History Boys and, the film that I think of as its (inferior) American equivalent, Dead Poet's Society.  If you're not familiar with either of these, you can probably skip this paragraph as it won't mean much to you.  Take this time to make a note to go and watch them both, particularly The History Boys.  Seriously, do it.  The similarities are fairly sparse; both revolve around a small intellectual group who are led by an enigmatic maverick of a teacher who works outside the typical constraints of traditional education.  However, I found Tartt's creation of Julian Morrow to be a little less inspiring than the teachers in the other two.  We see much less of Julian and are instead left only with Richard's word for how brilliant he is, which leaves me wondering why exactly the students are quite so loyal to him.  Possibly a reread will help make this clearer, but for now I'm uncertain as to whether Julian is deliberately more enigmatic or whether this is an oversight of Tartt's.

I apologise for how wordy this post got at points...for some reason, I felt a little like I was plunging back into the world of academic essay writing rather than casual book blogging.  Perhaps reading about scholars has that effect on me!  If you're not intimidated by a fairly chunky novel and you fancy being drawn into the heart of a twisting and turning tale of murder and mythology, then you should certainly give this a go.  I accept that it won't be for everybody and it's received fairly mixed reviews since it was published in 1992, but the fact that people are still discovering it for the first time so many years later speaks very highly of it.

If you've read The Secret History or think that you might be interested, let me know in the comments!

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