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(Book Review): The Secret History by Donna Tartt

How do I talk about a book like this? The truth is I probably can’t. At least, not as well as I’d like to. I finished The Secret History a few months ago and I’m still not sure how to write about it. But I’ve decided to just start writing and see where it gets me.

I reluctantly decided to listen to The Secret History as an audiobook. I generally feel audiobooks are better suited to sci-fi and fantasy than literary novels. However, the book is narrated by Donna Tartt herself, and knowing that it was the author’s interpretation of her own characters alleviated my guilt. What’s more, Tartt proved to be an extraordinary narrator as well as a spectacular author.  She brought the characters to life in a way I would never have managed by reading a physical copy. Her voice for Bunny is particularly notable. The combined brilliance of the novel and this narration means I’m bound to listen to it several more times within the next year alone.

I’ve frequently read The Secret History described as a ‘reverse murder-mystery’ novel. This is technically true. It starts off with a murder and then we follow the perpetrators – a small group of Ancient Greek students at the University of Vermont – and the events leading up to the crime. But I don’t think this description quite encompasses the novel. At first it seems to be a book about horrible people doing horrible things to other horrible people. In the beginning I was quite concerned about hating all of the characters so much. But gradually it dissipated. They weren’t awful people, just different. Then later, as I got to know them better, just flawed. Now that’s morally questionable…but it was an accident. Okay, that’s a lot more questionable, but they don’t really have any other choice… (and on it goes) until “Oh, god, these people are terrible, terrible human beings. And so am I for ever agreeing with their reasoning!” I was complicit in their crimes. Leading up to the murder I became more and more convinced it was necessary and unavoidable. Then, the further away we got from the incident, my sense of morality gradually returned to me, just as it does for the characters. Of course it wasn’t necessary! How could I ever have been convinced otherwise? It’s quite a journey as a reader. I became as morally corrupt as the characters without even noticing it.

For much of the book I couldn’t figure out the significance of Ancient Greek. Of course, my lack of knowledge on Ancient Greece itself inevitably meant that many of the references went over my head, but the subject features so prominently I was bound to missing something more obvious. Some central theme I should be able to pick up on. It wasn’t until after the halfway point and the murder that it suddenly clicked: The Secret History is, itself, a modern Greek tragedy. The murder itself is tragic, and afterwards we watch their lives splinter when, if only they had a chance to move on from it, everything would be okay again. A return to ‘normality’ feels tantalisingly close, but it can’t come to pass.

If the book has one weakness I would say the events of the climax seem somehow apart from the rest of the book. It doesn’t feel quite real. However, given how meticulously Tartt crafts her novels (she spends 10 years on each book she writes) it may well be that this surrealism is deliberate and I simply haven’t picked up on its significance yet.

But either way, The Secret History is one of those books which is so good it makes me worry about ever being able to love another novel again, and it’s hard to give a book higher praise than that.

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