The Secret History by Donna Tartt was an unexpected ride. And another incredible debut novel to pick up shortly after reading Tana French’s debut In the Woods. I didn’t think I’d enjoy a book about mostly egocentric privileged kids at a fancy university. Give those kids a bloody mess to live with and you have my attention. Go on.
Richard Papen is our 28-year old narrator reflecting on his years as a scholarship student at a small Vermont college. For him, this is “the only story I will ever be able to tell” and it begins at a climax: It’s snowing. Bunny Corcoran is dead and Richard had something to do with it. His body has yet to be found, but it’s only a matter of time.
Back to the very beginning as Richard takes us to understand how a young man who wanted so desperately to get out of California and study Greek gets caught up in a murder. You can see it coming from the moment he first arrives – now that we know what to look for. His preciously detailed descriptions of precocious classmates and the lush academic setting leave no room to doubt his commitment to this world. Richard dives in head first. Even in hindsight he knows himself too well to imagine things could have unfolded any other way.
Though at first denied entry into the small group of students studying the classics under an eccentric Greek professor, Richard manages to wiggle his way in. His five fellow classmates are mostly well off, careless, book smart and madly in love with themselves. Richard senses the group has some secrets, yet they quickly come to mean the world to him. It’s not till later that he realizes they always saw him as an outsider.
Most books that revolve around a murder either begin or end with the deed. Here you know it’s coming by the peek Richard gives us, but it doesn’t happen in his story until the middle and that creates an intriguing structure. Take the mystery out of the murder and what’s left? A lot of crazy tension and room to explore these surprisingly complex characters.
The suspense is slow burning. They chose to see the world through a construct and when it falls apart so do they. You wonder who will break and if they’ll take each other down with them.
This is a perfect example of a novel in which the characters don’t need to be likable to be compelling. The beginning dragged a bit, but Tartt is an incredible writer so I didn’t mind simply enjoying her prose. The end is fascinating as you see how these five very different characters live with having killed one of their own. First there’s the fear and paranoia of getting caught then the day to day work of living with what they did and watching each other live with it.