Review: The Secret History

Donna Tartt The Secret History

Title: The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt
Publisher: Penguin
Year originally published: 1992

‘I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?’

The Secret History is narrated by Richard Papen, a 20-year old from the West Coast studying at an elite Vermont college. In entering an exclusive Greek class, Richard gains social access to a group of highly enigmatic students and must masquerade as an oil heir in the hopes of retaining their friendship. Yet in trying to fit in with the group, Richard steadily becomes entangled within a dark drama that spreads like a stain from the very first page of the novel.

I picked The Secret History up directly after finishing exams, figuring that my last month as an undergrad would be the perfect time to read it. I approached it initially thinking that it would be a heavy, perhaps even slightly dry read, but after ten pages I was hooked. Like the narrator, I steadily became obsessed with both the novel’s characters and narrative. So many elements of the plot chimed with me, particularly its players. The captivating supervisor with an encyclopaedic knowledge and the erudite Henry who spent his childhood in the pursuit of learning obscure languages and literature seemed very familiar to me, as if lifted straight from the Cambridge colleges. The story is liberally sprinkled with erudite references to poetry and ancient Greek aphorisms, so makes for a fascinatingly didactic read. Also enthralling was the way in which the reader is invited to unravel multiple narrative knots – firstly, the motive behind the murder we are confronted with in the first couple of paragraphs, and secondly, the temporal setting of the novel, which seems to fluctuate from 30s to late 60s to 80s. Not only is Tartt’s narrative intriguing – her prose is electrifying. Even in scenes that might otherwise be considered mundane, Tartt’s writing is poetic enough to lift her novel to great heights. I particularly enjoyed the following description of unseasonal weather: ‘A November stillness was settling like a deadly oxymoron on the April landscape.’ With writing as good as this, it’s no wonder that the book has been described as a modern classic.

My verdict: 5/5
A solid five stars for The Secret History from me. This is a book I see myself returning to time and time again. It’s already dog-eared and well-loved, and I can’t wait to move on to The Goldfinch next. I know that this novel has seen twenty-two years of praise and cult following, but I can’t help but further extol it. The Secret History is a timeless triumph.


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