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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

secret history

I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.

This is Richard Papen’s story, and he starts out by telling us the truth about his rather boring and poor childhood in Plano, Northern California, which he quickly replaces for a much more satisfying–and fictional–life when he manages to acquire the financial aide he needs to attend college in Vermont. Richard recounts how a series of serendipity made him an indispensable member of the Greek class, a class which consists of a mere 5-member team, and how his past is intertwined with a horrific secret. Once in Vermont, he discovers that one of his biggest academic interests, Greek, is taught by Julian Morrow, who only takes on a handful of students, and his class is full. Through a twist of event, Richard was accepted into the class. Although he knows that in many aspects, he will be an outsider in this tiny, close-knit group, nevertheless he felt privileged to be one of them. 

Richard was meant to study pre-med, but: 

So I studied literature and liked it better. But I don’t think I can explain the despair my surroundings inspired in me. Though I now suspect, given the circumstances and my disposition, I would’ve been unhappy anywhere. I was unconvinced my unhappiness is indigenous to that place. Perhaps a part of it was. While to a certain extent Milton is right – the mind is its own place and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell and so forth. 

Julian Morrow’s class is more than just a Greek class, however–it is an entire major. These six students, Charles and Camilla Macauley (the twins), Francis Abernathy, Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran, Henry Winter, and Richard, take most of their classes with Julian as Classics majors. It is a very unusual situation for undergraduates and it is a decision that Richard has been warned against, but–he’s simply too fascinated with the group to stay away. Slowly, incident by incident, we get to know these young people as they begin to let Richard into their fold. 

It was why I admired Julian, and Henry in particular. Their reason, they very eyes and ears were fixed irrevocably in the confined of those stern and ancient rhythms – the world, in fact, was not their home, at least not the world as I knew it – and far from being occasional visitors to this land which I myself knew only as an admiring tourist, they were pretty much its permanent residents, as permanent as I suppose it was possible for them to be. 

It is not long after Richard joins the group that something very bizarre happens to Francis, Charles, Camilla, and Henry, who have been experimenting clandestinely with a Pagan ritual focused on worshiping Dionysus and committed a bacchanal. The four of them want nothing more than to completely forget what happened that night and the horrible accident it caused, and are desperate to keep it a secret. 

This incident is the catalyst for the rest of the plot and turns the lives of everyone in this little circle into a strange, mysterious and wicked odyssey. 

I loved Tartt’s incorporation of ancient Greek studies and the day to day account of the friends dropping at each others place, hang out and spend the weekend away together. Tartt paints crisp, sharp descriptions of the characters and the landscape they inhabit. Tartt has a wonderful way with language and the 637 pages just turned themselves. She goes deep-sea fishing in human soul, philosophy, love, art through vivid depictions of characters. The book is overwhelmed by character development. Donna Tartt is able to get inside these people’s heads to a point where we feel we are there with them. We know what they do, what they think, why they drink (lots of drinking and doing drugs by the way); what they like and dislike about each one of them—and how they interact as a group, which will explain why they did what they did. I began to identify with the characters. I half expected any one of these characters to show up at my door step, tell me what to do or decided that they would divulge in one of their darkest secrets to me. 

Most thrillers and murder mysteries would tell you whodunit at the end, sent the murderer off to well deserved incarceration for life, end of the story. Secret History is different. It tells you whodunit in the prologue, how they plan to do it, why they need to do it, once the body is 6 feet under, how they feel about it, and the tragedy and tension that ensued to those who done it. I felt sorry for the characters, especially Richard Papen. I am sorry for Richard to think that when the one big obstacle is out of the way, Camilla would marry him. But she said she is in love with another one, even though the one is dead. 

The characters have a very complicated relationship with each other. Despite harbouring a dark secret together, blaming each other for their precarious circumstances, they are afraid of each other, yet they care, love and do things for each other. 

This is a remarkable novel, as the critic says a “Thinking person” thriller. Captivating, unhurried at the beginning. Tension built, fast-paced at the middle and at the end. Perfectly calibrated novel, this is a chronicle of deception and complicity, of ancient Greek, Dionysian and Bacchanal, of innocence corrupted by self love and moral arrogance; it is about a story of outcasts, how insulated and different young person might feel about themselves, mind-sets which are back-dated, “for if the modern mind is whimsical and discursive, the classical mind is narrow, unhesitating, relentless.” ; and finally this is a story of guilt and responsibility. A great read for those who love to explore the human psyche. 

I picked this book because of Reading Monk’s  recommendation. I borrowed it from the library, stumbled upon it while browsing through charity shop and bought a copy of my own. A remarkable novel, just make sure you take a break in between to get back to real life. I had to read something lighter after reading this book! 

Verdict 4.5/5:

What I like most about the book: Riveting and haunting. The characters stay in your mind long after you put the book down.

What I like least about the book: The book can be disturbing. The fundamental motivations of all of the characters remained unclear. Why did Henry so idolize Julian, his professor? What in the twins’ past led them to their present relationship? Why did Henry feel so obliged to give in to Bunny’s every whims and fancy even well before Bunny knew about the hideous act they have committed? 

Donna TarttAbout the Writer:
This photo of Tartt was extract from the inner flap of the 1992 edition. Somehow I am disturbed by her look. I would imagine one of her characters’ aura is like her, other-worldly, classic and mystical.

With the success of Secret History, she became one of the most mythologised novelists of modern times, weird and reclusive and very much a Writer. She still has that famous shiny bob, still wears boys’ clothes from Gap Kids, abhorred over production of novels. In fact between her first and second novel, the “Little Friend” is a gap of 10 years. – from Guardian.co.uk


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


4 thoughts on “The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  1. I picked this up while on holidays a few years ago and could not get into it. I traded my copy with another backpaker (I got a jar of vegemite in return – for an Aussie who’d been away from home for some months I always felt that I got the better side of that deal). I have often thought I should give it another go when I am not quite so distracted.

    Posted by bernadetteinoz | July 22, 2009, 11:30 pm
    • I swear when I was reading the book I thought about recommending you this one, but I was afraid that it might not fit into your preferred genre of crime fiction! It is a thriller though, and for all the reasons I adore the book, I am sure you will find this enjoyable if you take the time to read it. Thanks for dropping in.

      Posted by jovenus | July 23, 2009, 7:27 am


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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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