If there’s one thing I’m always looking for in something I read, it’s for the book to exude some kind of atmosphere with writing that conjures up palpable feelings with its setting and characters. Plot twists are fine, but in my mind truly great novels are driven by depth of character and settings that feel so real you could draw them in a sketchbook yourself.
Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, first published in 1992, is one of the few novels I’ve encountered that delivers on this front. It’s not exactly recent being older than most undergrads here, but since I stumbled upon it on at my local Waterstones a few months ago and devoured it in less than a week, I wanted to pass on the gospel so to speak.
Our narrator, Richard Papen, leaves his suburban, working class 90s Californian life behind to attend a small liberal arts college in New Hampshire. By some sort of chance he falls into a class of rich, academically brilliant students dedicating themselves to the pursuit of the Classics and Ancient Greek – complete with an eccentric, fountain-of-all-knowledge professor. Whilst the novel delights in sprinkling references to Dionysus and the classics throughout, don’t let this put you off as it just adds to the mood of the novel. Richard’s classmates, somewhat social outcasts themselves, and the intense claustrophobic climate of the small college soon sweep Richard up in snowballing sequence of increasingly horrific events.
The novel is a murder mystery – clear from the gripping opening paragraph – but what makes The Secret History special is its focus on why and how the murder was carried out. Richard’s friends are vividly developed by Tartt’s sumptuous and detailed language. Henry is frighteningly intelligent and ruthless when he needs to be. Bunny, although rich and lazy, is the most amiable of the group, and Francis, impeccably dressed and always aloof, captures Richard’s attention from the start. Camilla and Charles, the twins, carry an air of distracting angelic beauty, even for Richard. This exclusive gang truly come truly alive under Tartt’s pen.
Richard as a narrator is interesting. He enters the novel lonely and bitter, and pours himself into the possibility of befriending his classmates, pinning his hopes of a new exciting life on them and becoming blinded to their flaws. Insecure and easily influenced, he is submerged just like the reader into a world of deception and secrecy. Cigarettes dangle from fingers at dinner parties between awkward silences, friendships become dangerously fraught, and luxurious weekends away at the country estate turn sour. The boundaries between the Greek myths they are studying and real life increasingly start to blur. It’s a lucid portrait.
Richard’s professor states early on in the novel that ‘beauty is terror’ – and there is a terrible beauty in the shadow of horror that hangs over this masterfully controlled Greek tragedy of a novel.