The Secret History – Donna Tartt

secret historyThe Secret History was recommended to me by various friends and family members, and when I started reading it, I soon understood why.

I studied Classics at university, which means that a substantial part of my life has been spent with my nose in Ancient Greek books, plays, poems, philosophies and historical texts. Although it’s not something I spend my time doing anymore, I loved my degree and still have a fondness for anything classically related.

So, this is point one why I loved The Secret History. It centres around a group of Ancient Greek students at a small, idyllic college in Vermont, instructed by their eccentric and archaic professor, Julian. The descriptions of their seminars and studies, Julian as a professor, the surroundings of the college, all gave me such nostalgia for my own university days. I liked that I could recognise elements of what they were studying, and could appreciate more fully some of the discussions they had around the literature, culture and philosophy of the Ancient Greeks, which play quite a big part in this story. It made me feel a bit like I was part of the group; this oddball bunch of scholars, bonded by their love of prose composition and Plato (not that, it should be said, I have any love for either of those things, but at least I’m familiar with what they’re all about!)

However, I realise that this is a pretty niche reason for liking a book, and not something that everyone will see as a positive reason to read this novel. But, there’s so much more to it as a story, that appreciation and enjoyment of it does not just hinge on a passion for Ancient Greece.

The students themselves are another reason I found the book so gripping. They’re outsiders, cut off from the rest of the college community, but we only see them through the viewpoint of the narrator, Richard, who so desperately wants to be a part of their group. To him they may be strange, but they are glamorous, isolated but aloof – in his eyes, they don’t need anyone else, whereas to others they can seem insular and uninviting. They’re a mishmash of different characters – from the brusque and, frankly, odious Bunny to the enigmatic Henry and the enticing Camilla. Each one of them has a mystery about them, which is gradually peeled away as the story unfolds. It’s maybe the glamorisation of them by the narrator that made me feel a bit of a thrill at being somehow ‘part’ of their Classics group.

The main reason this book is such a winner, though, is that it’s essentially a murder mystery. It’s not a classic murder mystery in the ‘whodunnit’ sense – it’s made clear from the start of the novel that the narrator was involved in a murder and that this is the purpose for the story being told – but the mystery element comes from finding out the victim and the motivation for the murder. It’s this determination to find out what exactly happened, why it happened and all the circumstances around it that keeps you reading on.

In terms of things I didn’t like? I got a little restless towards the end, after the death had occurred but there were still quite a few pages left. Maybe it was because the adrenalin of finding out the mystery had gone. However, this is only a minor point against the novel, and Tartt does well to counteract this inevitable slowdown in pace by injecting more intrigue in the remaining characters. It never crossed my mind to stop reading it at any point, which is clearly a job well done by the author!

All in all, a great read, and not a heavy book that needs considerable effort.

Star rating: ♥♥♥♥

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