The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History lives rent free in my head. It is a masterpiece. A thing of rare beauty. A tour de force. A literary triumph.

“One likes to think there’s something in it, that old platitude amor vincit omnia. But if I’ve learned one thing in my short sad life, it is that that particular platitude is a lie. Love doesn’t conquer everything. And whoever thinks it does is a fool.”

Written in an incandescent prose The Secret History is a ferociously erudite and delightfully mischievous work of staggering genius. I have read it twice now and each time it has blown me away. Reading this novel makes for an all-consuming, almost feverish, experience.
It is impossible for me to precisely articulate or express what The Secret History means to me. To speak of it as a work of fiction almost pains me. But, as I have chosen to review all of the novels that I read, I will give it a shot. Bear with me (and my ramblings).

“Four boys and a girl, they were nothing so unusual at a distance. At close range, though, they were an arresting party—at least to me, who had never seen anything like them, and to whom they suggested a variety of picturesque and fictive qualities.”

The Secret History begins with a murder. Richard Papen, our narrator, looks back to the events that lead him and four other students to murder Bunny, a fellow student and ‘friend’ of theirs. That Tartt’s prologue reveals the identity of the victim and perpetrators of the murder. As Richard looks back into this defining period of his life (the only ‘story’ he “will ever be able to tell”) Tartt slowly unravels the events and motivations that led five people to murder as well as the ramifications that this murder has on their lives and their relationship with each other and themselves.
In Plano, California, alienated from his parents and his peers, twenty-year-old Richard yearns to leave behind the trappings of his working-class existence. One day he comes across a prospectus for a liberal arts college in Vermont and, against his parents’ wishes, goes on to enrol himself there. At Hampden College, a painfully class-conscious Richard lies. A lot. He fabricates a ‘better’ kind of past and identity for himself, hoping that people will perceive him as he wishes to be perceived. It almost seems inevitable that a romantic like him would fall under the spell of a certain ‘clique’. These five students are the only ones to be enrolled in professor Julian Morrow’s classes, who mainly teaches classical studies. Richard is intrigued by their shared air of mystery. They don’t tend to mingle with other students and seem to belong to an entirely separate world. And Richard wants in on it. When he eventually gets accepted into Julian’s classes he becomes further intoxicated by this clique.
In this first section of Richard’s story, the narrative has this almost fairytale-esque quality. Julian appears to Richard as a mythical sort of creature, the kind of mentor-like figure that would not be out of place in a monomyth. Soon Tartt however subverts our expectations by revealing just how fatal Richard’s misperception of his new reality is. The rarefied world Henry, Francis, the twins, and Bunny belong to may not be as the Elysium Richard envisioned it to be. The college itself is not the ‘enlightened’ haven he’d thought it would be. The more time he spends with his new acquaintances the more he becomes aware of just how dangerously disconnected they are from their everyday modern world (they certainly seem to belong to another time).
As the narrative progresses, we learn just how disillusioned all of these characters are by their realities. This disillusionment leads them to apotheosize bygone eras, and, in the case of Richard, idealise their surroundings.
Fraying alliances, secrets, and betrayals increase the tension between the characters, heightening the drama.
As we learn of the circumstances that led to Bunny’s murder our view of Henry & Co. will begin to change. Their hunger for the inaccessible and desire to transcend their reality, perhaps to access sublimity or a higher plane of existence, leads them to cross—jump over even—quite a few lines. Yet, however flawed they reveal themselves to be (let us say, they seem to have more vices than virtues), I remained transfixed by them.
Their lifestyles, while certainly extravagant, are not all that desirable. Considering their poor diets, their heavy drinking and smoking, and, at least in the case of Richard, that they are sleep deprived, it is a miracle that they don’t get scurvy or worse.
Tartt doesn’t glamorise their actions and Bunny’s murder takes its toll on them. Between the anxiety of being discovered and the guilt that they (some of them) experience it seems inevitable that things take a turn for the worst. The disintegration of their friendship is hard to read but I was unable to tear my eyes away.

That Richard remains on the outskirts of this group makes Henry & Co. all the more intriguing. Henry and Camilla make for extremely ambivalent figures. Because we know as much as Richard does, we often don’t know what truly motivates these characters, yet, despite how ambiguous they could be, Tartt is capable of capturing those idiosyncrasies that make them who they are. We learn more about Francis, Charles, and even Bunny, because Richard spends more time with them. While Richard’s relationship with them is far from straightforward I found their interactions to be utterly engrossing. I definitely have a bias when it comes to Francis and I could probably spend hours talking about how much I love him. Really. Just thinking about him makes me emotional (i am aware that he is far from perfect but that is also why i like him so much).


Richard, unreliable narrator par par excellence, is an interesting character in his own right. He reminded me ever so slightly of the narrator from Tobias Wolff’s Old School and he even seems to have a touch of the ‘dreaded’ Emma Bovary (longing 24/7).
Tartt demonstrates extreme acuity in the way she conveys Richard’s inner turmoil, his loneliness and his desires. He, like the others, has his fair share of flaws but I found his voice utterly relatable. The boy really has very few people that care about him. His parents seem to act as if he doesn’t exist, his professors ignore or are wholly unaware that he is teetering on the very brink of mental and physical collapse (think of his hellish winter break). Another reason why I find him so compelling is that he’s surprisingly supportive of those who have made him feel like an outsider (i am an extremely petty person so, kudos to him). Given the ‘otherness’ he feels—and is made to feel—I thought it quite fitting that after he cuts his hair he compares himself to Arthur Rimbaud (“Je est un autre” & all that jazz).
The love he believes he feels for Camilla seemed very much a result of his “fatal flaw”. That she remains a mystery to him enables him to project his own vision of ‘Camilla’ onto her. Richard seems to regard her as an Estella of sorts, the kind of ethereal beauty that so frequently appears in Victorian novels. Also, is this boy in denial about his sexuality (he’s attracted to her androgynous appearance, her “boy-feet”, her “slightly masculine grace of posture”). In many ways, Camilla is the classic object of unattainable desire (or as our boy lacan would have it “objet petit a”). As long as his love remains unrequited Richard can remain in a perpetual state of longing. Weirdly enough, he finds fulfilment in the perpetuation of his non-fulfilment.

This novel is populated by morally dubious characters who frequently transgress social norms. Not everyone is happy to do so and much of the narrative is about the guilt, anguish, anxiety, and sorrow that result from these ‘bad’ choices.
The dialogues are by turns sharp, funny, illuminating, and obscure. Many of the exchanges that occur within this narrative filled me with unease, apprehension. Thanks to Richard’s foreshadowing we often know that someone is hiding something or that things are going to take a turn for the worst.
The unflagging tension created by the ongoing drama between them kept me at the edge-of-my-seat (even during my re-read). Their chemistry is off-the-charts. From their moments of kinship to their devastating fights. Witnessing the slow dissolution of this group filled me with dread. But how real these ‘characters’ feel to me! Just thinking about them makes my heart ache.

Tartt enriches Richard’s story with plenty of literary and mythical allusions. From the narrative’s underlying Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy to those beguiling descriptions of the ancient world. The constant blurring of reality and dreams and of truth and illusion makes this novel all the more enigmatic and the kind of book that can be read time and again (i already want to re-read it).
The Secret History is a sharp and achingly beautiful novel. Tartt presents her readers with an unforgettable examination of morality, self-knowledge, loneliness, and privilege. The Secret History is a propulsive psychological thriller, a piercing examination of the folly of youth, a cautionary tale against falling for Beauty, for splendid illusions.
Tartt’s scintillating style, which is at once elegant and playful, is truly hypnotising. I love how detailed she is in describing Richard’s states of mind as well as her vivid descriptions of his surroundings. She often hones in on seemingly small details that end up making a certain scene or moment seem all the more real. But I also loved those moments of almost surreal humor, those brief reprieve in an otherwise unrelentingly intense narrative.
What makes this novel all the more intoxicating is that readers end up falling for what the narrative is warning us against. We idealise the characters and their circumstances, we are distracted by the sharp imagery and dazzling aesthetics, so much so that we end up overlooking just how prosaic and depressing certain portions of the story are (pretty sure richard snorts “an awful lot of cocaine in the parking lot of burger king”…yeah).
Anyway, as you may have guessed if you are reading this review, I fucking love this novel. Tartt spent 9 years writing it and it sure paid off.
I am, and likely always be, in awe of it.

SMALL ASIDE:
It was my mother who first spoke to me about Donna Tart. Her rather battered paperback copy of The Secret History was a fixture on her bookshelves. She first read it in 1994 (since then she has read it many many many times) when she was about to give birth to my older brother (to quote her: “it got me through labour”) who is exactly the kind of person you imagine him to be. Case in point: he is currently reading the Bāburnāmathe, the memoirs of Ẓahīr-ud-Dīn Muhammad Bābur (naturally, i asked what she was reading while she was pregnant with me and it turns out it would have likely been a children’s book…which explains a lot).
A few months before I read The Secret History for the first time I recall overhearing my mum and brother talking about it with such reverence as to suggest that what they were discussing was not ‘merely’ a work of fiction but real people and events. I was intrigued, of course, but it was only after I was suffering from an acute case of book hangover (i’d just finished the raven cycle) that my mother recommended The Secret History to me.
I won’t lie, I was worried that it would go way over my head. At that time, I did not have a degree. After dropping out of my Italian high school at age 16 I had managed to complete a rather slapdash qualification in an art and design course, which was based in Swindon—a place described in this novel as being the ‘arsehole’ of the UK—and mostly consisted in us—the students—being left to our devices in order to create whatever art or non-art we wanted to create. Unlike my brother, who spent his childhood and teens reading historical tomes or learning about historical figures or ancient cultures, I never had much interest in those things. All of this is to say that I had very little knowledge of ancient history or the western literary canon, let alone anything related to philosophy. So, I was amazed by how little my lack of knowledge in these things proved to be a hindrance in my reading experience of The Secret History.
1.5 degree and 5 years later I am able to understand certain passages or motifs better but to be honest I can’t say that this has affected the way I feel about this novel. I also used google a lot because I don’t know latin and while I may know more about Nietzsche that 20-year-old me did I still know next-to-nothing about Plato and the other Greek lads and zilch about Buddhist traditions.

SECOND ASIDE:
Look, I like a lot of books and films that fall into the dark academia subgenre but I have come to despise the whole ‘dark academia aesthetics’ trend. If you read this novel and all you get out of it is tweed jackets and libraries…you are as bad—if not worse—than Richard (let’s glamorise this extremely elitist world…yay).
This was made by lucy and boy if it isn’t spot on:

my rating: ★★★★★

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