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.


Review: The Fault In Our Stars

The Fault In Our Stars

Title: The Fault In Our Stars
Author: John Green
Publisher: Penguin Books
Year originally published: 2012

I’m sure that The Fault In Our Stars hasn’t escaped your attention. You’re probably sick of Stars-related reviews. It’s just one of those books that can’t help but permeate the sphere of one’s consciousness. It’s been riding high in the bestsellers’ list for weeks and weeks. It’s been displayed in prime position in just about every bookshop I’ve walked into in the last few months. Oh, and it’s reached saturation point on the blogs I read, even making that rare jump from reviews on the book blogs to lifestyle and even beauty blogs. In short, it was solidly on my TBR list, and my expectations were high.

The question is, were they met? Well, it’s pretty hard not to love the book. I instantly identified with the main character, Hazel, who seemingly has all the traits I saw in myself when I, too, was an angsty adolescent. She flips out at her nervously helicoptering mum. She runs off with a gorgeous boy even when her parents advise her against it. She prefers literature to real life: she’d rather sit on a bench and read her newly purchased novel at the mall than chat with her best friend. But there’s one thing that sets Hazel quite apart from that group of rebellious, bookish sixteen-year olds of which I was once a firm member. She’s got terminal cancer.

But hold on a second before you dismiss The Fault In Our Stars as a depressing cancer novel. The Fault In Our Stars is not merely about cancer. It’s about grabbing the gift of life while you have it, about enjoying every moment you’ve got, because let’s face it – we spend our lives dying, always unsure how long exactly we’ve got. Hazel is like a bud in the novel, tightly closing in on herself because she’s afraid of her grenade-like potential, convinced that the fewer people she surrounds herself with, the smaller the radius of the shrapnel blast that will inevitably happen when she ‘bites it’. It’s only with the appearance of athletic, totally fanciable Augustus that she slowly starts to open up and shake off the dependent traits that cancer has fostered in her character, which is wonderful to read. It’s rare to see such palpable character development – or, conversely, to see such physical change in characters over the course of a novel – and I’m sure that it’s this character growth that had me sobbing so hard at the end of the book.

My verdict: 4/5
The Fault In Our Stars is eminently readable, and should be read, I think, by all members of my generation. We’re at that age where everything seems conquerable and life seems to stretch on endlessly ahead of us; we feel constantly invincible. Reading this book made me profoundly aware of my own mortality, especially as the characters were a good six years younger than me. I’ve definitely read books that are written much more elegantly, with more thrilling plots, but this is not the point here. For me, this was a story about celebrating the relationships that you’ve built up, being grateful for good health, and savouring every moment you’ve got. I’m excited for the film – but I’d better bring a big packet of Kleenex.