The Secret History – Donna Tartt

Continuing the Ten Favourite Books list, I re-read The Secret History by Donna Tartt, published in 1992 and which I first read in 2003. Tartt was a contemporary of Bret Easton Ellis and Jonathan Lethem at Bennington College and this novel, begun in Bennington, was her debut when it was published eight years later. (Tartt famously takes about ten years to produce each book.) It became a bestseller and has since developed a cult following.

The Secret History begins with a murder and so the mystery happens in reverse; we know who did it, but not why. The main characters are a group of Classics students at the fictional Hampden College in Vermont: Henry Winter, a rich stand-offish genius; Francis Abernathy, an equally rich and highly strung charmer; twins Charles and Camilla, inseparable, beautiful and aloof; and Bunny Corcoran, the apparent misfit of the group due to his brash and clumsy manner. Richard Papen is the narrator, a new student to the college who is immediately entranced by their group and wants desperately to belong, lying to them about his own modest background to fit in.

The students are devoted to their eccentric professor, and inspired by his teachings they decide to have a Bacchanal. After months of abortive attempts they finally succeed and what transpires that night changes their lives and leads to them committing murder. Re-reading the book, I was just as enthralled second time around, even though I remembered the plot. However I had forgotten much of the later detail, and I did feel a mounting sense of tension towards the end.

It’s a huge achievement on Tartt’s part (had to do that, sorry) to serve up the murder at the beginning of the story, ostensibly ruining the denouement, and yet still keep readers turning pages into the small hours to see why it happened. Her writing is beautifully crafted, erudite and meticulously detailed; you can see why it takes her ten years to write each book.

The Secret History was followed in 2002 by The Little Friend (which I quite enjoyed but wasn’t daft about) and last year by The Goldfinch, which is sitting in the current pile waiting to be read.

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