The Secret History

My copy does not look like this

Image by MatHampson via Flickr

I’ve just finished reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I must admit that I read it under pretentious and self-serving pretenses: she was given an obscenely large advance for it, it was critically acclaimed and a New York Times bestseller, and she was hailed by all of the literary world. Then she disappeared for ten years before she published her next book–and that was a success as well. I had to see for myself if she was really that good, and whether I could learn anything from reading her works.

The best thing about the book is that Tartt chose the best way to tell the story, which can make or break a book. Also, though she follows many genre rules/restrictions, she completely ignores others. She weaves so much of Greek culture and the structure of a Greek tragedy into the story, that you can almost forget it’s taking place in modern day America.

The Secret History is the story of a group of five Greek scholars at Hampden University (a ficticious school in Vermont) who kill their classmate. You know from the opening pages who gets killed and who did it, yet Tartt manages to make this the least important aspect of the story. What you come to find is that, like the best epic Greek stories, this one has begun in medius reas, in the beginning, not at the ending, as it seems.  

The story is told by Richard Papen, the newest student in the Greek class. He is, in effect, an outsider to the story; he only knows slightly more than the reader at the time of the events. Told from the perspective of some years after the events in Richard’s first person narration, the reader has the best view of the story–the slow unfolding of some of its biggest horrors and the complete blindsiding of others, as well as the suspense and tension of the moment.

The story was, by necessity, slow to start. The location and major characters had to be established. However, it took me quite a few pages to begin to distinguish Francis from Henry. There were also some things she borrowed from the Greek culture that didn’t seem to fit in overmuch with the story–not that they were interesting angles, but they weren’t necessary or particularly enlightening when all was said and done. The Greek teacher himself, though he figured quite a bit in the story, seemed superfluous and forgetable. I never drew any conclusions about him, mostly because I didn’t care after a while.

Overall, it was a well-written book that told an interesting story. The climax felt appropriate for the story, the only way I could be satisfied with the story ending, but the actually ending of the book was…well, a letdown. The fact that this was a debut novel is astounding. It’s rare to find a beginning author with this defined a voice and making POV and narration choices that are this perfect.