The Secret History (1992) – Donna Tartt

Title: The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt
Date published: 1992
Publisher: Penguin Books
Star rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I feel as though anyone who has ever loved and cherished the experience of reading a novel of classic literature should pick up a copy of Tartt’s 1992 masterpiece and prepare themselves for a feast of words stitched together so beautifully that when you eventually raise your head from the pages of this novel you will be gasping for air as the world’s atmosphere will seem stale in comparison.

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If this introduction seems a bit dramatic well then I would like you as the reader of serious literature to consider the notion that sometimes dramatizing an event before said event is the perfect prelude to what is essentially a ‘performance’. What do I mean by this? I guess I mean to state that Tartt’s novel can be likened to a play, a Greek tragedy, a sonnet of unspeakable joys and sorrows. Much like the Greek legends of old, this is a novel about feeling the most glorious and also of feeling almost unfathomable terror and guilt. It is a novel that turns its ordinary characters into legends, and its enigmatic characters into mere bit players on a much greater stage. Most importantly though, it is a novel that drags the reader into the age-old debate of the moral ambiguity that causes guilt in the most unlikely of situations. This is a novel about secrets and how they have the potential to tear the greatest of friendships apart.

At Hampden College in New England Richard Papen at 19 is fresh out of a Californian high school and is studying Biology at this quiet and unassuming college. His parents are not rich, and Richard is relying on financial support. Not to sound cliché but Richard’s life will change the day he decides to switch from Biology to studying English, despite the fact that he has no faith in an English degree. During this life epiphany Richard comes across the name of a mysterious lecturer named Julian Morrow whose Greek classes are supposedly quite extraordinary and Richard becomes determined to become a student of Morrow’s.

At Hampden Julian Morrow and his small band of Greek students are considered aloof and best left alone. Outside of this elite group the world is spinning by in a rush of nineties benders of cocaine and Brian Eno and attempts at appearing full of intellect simply because you sat through Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and you have a poster of Zsa Zsa Gabor on your dorm room wall. With great difficulty Richard manages to infiltrate the group and soon realizes that he is not simply joining a few classes, but rather gaining access to a society of some rather interesting characters whose personal lives and overall lifestyle quickly become intertwined with his own.

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The inner sanctum: Charles and Camilla Macaulay are the orphaned twins who outside of the college live with their grandparents in Vermont, and are particularly close. Francis Abernathy is the flamboyant and openly gay member whose Bostonian wealth is about as striking as his ability to remain neutral in most cases. Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran seems to have the least privileged background and is always without money. He does however have a penchant for the finer (read: expensive) things in life. Henry Winter is the serious, suit-wearing, wealthy, linguistic genius who takes the role of leader in this rather eclectic band of scholars. Their sense of closeness is almost intoxicating and it slowly becomes apparent to Richard, and the reader, that they are being allowed a glimpse into an extremely secretive world.

Unlike characters such as John Keating in the 1989 film Dead Poet’s Society, Julian Morrow is no Robin Williams. His band of ‘merry men (and one woman) are not grasping the sweetness of life, but rather embracing life in a far more sinister way, and choosing the more Bacchanalian approach. Their obsession with the Greek way of life takes them on a disturbing journey filled with wine and sex and ritualistic darkness that ends in a tragedy that will forever cling to the group’s already deeply hardened psyche. As this tragic incident threatens to tear them apart the reader begins their own descent into a sort of muddled hysteria.

The characters in this novel are prone to bouts of madness and acts of violence. They move through the pages with what appears to be very little remorse or guilt, and yet those feelings are always there, waiting in the wings, in the darkest of passages. Their self-assured hedonism becomes swallowed up by alcoholism, mental illness, morbidity and a recklessness that creates a very fragile barrier between their group and the rest of the outside world. In The Secret History the world of academia becomes the stomping ground for a modern and moral dilemma. Every page is a delicious taste of the glorious past, and how that sense of complete abandon no longer has a place in modern society where the threat of consequences hang heavily over ‘carpe diem’.

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