Is there anyone left in the world who hasn’t read this, or was it just me?! This is the June choice for the V&A Book Club, and I was very glad it was chosen, as I’ve been wanting to read it for years and have never got around to it. Its popularity was a factor; as you all know, I don’t like to read hyped up contemporary fiction (even though this is nearly 20 years old now), and also, the length had put me off. However, Book Club demanded that I read it, and so on the plane with me it came. My initial reaction was of boredom and turgidness; it was difficult to get into, wordy, detailed, intense. However, by the time I got off the plane, I was absorbed in the story, and couldn’t stop reading until I finished it the next day. It was an odd experience, reading this; I enjoyed it, but in the surreptitious, slightly guilty way you enjoy eating a McDonald’s…I felt a little bit dirty every time I emerged from the world within, but when I was reading, it was so good, so satsfying, that I was willing to put up with the after effects.
I was surprised by the opening of the book, as it subverts the usual expectations of a mystery by revealing the conclusion at the beginning. We know from the first page that Bunny, one of the main characters, will die, before we’ve met any of the protagonists in this story. We also know that he was murdered by his friends. I initially wondered whether there would be much suspense involved in a story where the ending was already known, but I soon discovered that true suspense comes from discovering the whys, hows, and whats that could possibly have led to such a dramatic conclusion. Who was this cool narrator, Richard Papen, so insistent that he was not an evil person, not someone to be feared, and who were these friends of his who assisted him in this act of extinguishing the life of another, so callously? Why was Bunny in particular chosen to be murdered; what had he done? And where was Richard narrating this from, and at what time? What had the consequences been of their actions? Was Richard in jail? There was so much I needed to unravel, so much I was hungry to find out, and Donna Tartt so skillfully teased out the events, so emotionally involved me with the characters, so convinced me, through Richard, that their actions were understandable, excusable, even, that I felt I was there, living it with them, tensed with fear and foreboding, hanging on every word coming from Richard’s mouth. I haven’t ever read anything quite like it, and I thought it was absolutely, breathtakingly, magnificent.
The plot centres around a group of five Classics students at an exclusive Vermont college, Hampden. The eccentric, God like professor of Greek, Julian, picks his students carefully, and he has chosen a select group of attractive, intelligent and wealthy young men and one woman to take his class, allowing no one else in. Henry, the leader of the pack, is a quiet, enigmatic, incredibly intelligent twenty one year old with a mind stuck in Ancient Greece. His hold over the others is one of a father to children; they all respect him, and look to him for protection, direction, acceptance. Francis is more of a shadowy figure; kind, considerate, and the homosexual of the group. Camilla and Charles are elfen like orphaned twins, devoted to one another, eccentric, and highly personable, they are the most endearing of the group, despite the faint whiff of potential incest they carry with them. Finally there is the floppy, loveable Bunny, whose relationship with the group will swiftly turn so sour that he gets murdered by them. Into this motley crew arrives Richard, a disillusioned aesthete from small town California, poor, downtrodden, desperate for some meaning in his life, and a connection with the glamour of this select group of charmed individuals. He bluffs his way into Greek class by spinning a web of lies about his true background, and so keen is he for acceptance into the inner sanctum of Julian’s lair, that when the shocking discovery of his new friends’ true natures is revealed, instead of walking away, he finds himself drawn deeper into their lives, becoming irrevocably entangled in a course of events that will go on to destroy all of them.
It is a remarkable novel, in that Richard’s narration, so reasonable, so reflective, so filled with regret, left me feeling no disgust for these mere children, whose cossested upbringings and naive intellect, with no knowledge of the real world, left them incapable of dealing with the consequences of actions they never truly meant to take. Bunny is the most difficult of the characters to read about; wonderfully vulnerable, hilarious and endearing, knowing he will die is hard at first, but then when his character changes, and his motives and jealousies come to light, it’s almost easy to believe that he deserved what he got, and in doing so, Tartt makes her readers just as bad as the characters they feel they are morally superior to. Richard’s narration is, of course, geared towards making him out to be blameless, not your typical murderer, hardly someone to despise, and this ulterior motive always hangs at the back of your mind, making you wonder whether the interpretations of characters’ actions and intentions was always accurate, or glamorised, softened, excused, by a still desperate to be accepted, flattered, included, loved, Richard. For this is the centre of the story; Richard could be any one of us. He is not a cruel, calculating man. He acted as he did because he wanted to be part of something bigger than himself; included, accepted, trusted, part of the gang. He wanted to fit in, at any cost. This is what frightened me the most about this book; this story, the shocking events it describes and the reasons behind them, are understandable. They make sense. Who among us is strong enough to stand alone, to face loneliness, exclusion, exile from those we love, even if the alternative causes us to sell a piece of our souls to preserve what we most treasure? Humans need to belong, and this herd mentality, so disturbingly easy to become a force of menace, is what ultimately forms the fate of these individuals who had so much promise.
I can’t describe this novel adequately enough to express its brilliance. There is so much richness, so much symbolism, so much I could talk about, it would take me days to write it all down. It’s not even all doom and gloom; alongside the intensity of the story of Richard and his classmates, there were moments of such hilarity in the descriptions of university life; living in dorms, parties, awkward room mates and friends made merely for convenience, all so close to the bone I couldn’t help laughing at their absolute pinpoint accuracy. It perfectly captures the sheer awkwardness of being in your early twenties, of being an adult without the experience or maturity to cope with the life adulthood throws at you, of the desire to shake off your past, to become someone else, and to find a place and people amongst whom you belong. It is also a terrifying exploration of how one simple decision can change the course of lives, and of how easy it is to find your life spiralling out of control, without the ability or strength of character to take back the reins. The Secret History will haunt me for a long time, I think. If you haven’t read it, you must. It will make you question what’s really in that heart of yours, and what you might too be capable of in Richard’s place. Not an easy read, not by any means, but one I wouldn’t have missed for the world. Donna Tartt is an incredible writer. I can’t wait to read her other novel.