The Secret History – Donna Tartt: A Review

Date finished: October 22nd 2015

Occasionally a novel’s popularity is fueled not by sales but by the far slower process of word-of-mouth. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is one such novel. First published in 1992, Tartt’s debut is more than worthy of being known as a modern classic.

It wasn’t a novel I personally had heard of. The odd mention on best-book-lists and the occasional recommendation by customers or colleagues was about as far as I got. My curiosity was piqued but not enough to risk buying a copy. Then, whilst perusing the shelves of a charity shop, I stumbled across a copy for £1.99 and decided to bite the bullet. It’s not a decision I’ve regretted.

The Secret History follows the life of Richard Papen, a young Californian who has just enrolled at an East Coast University of Hampden. It’s there that he notices a small class of eccentrics who study classical Greek. He finds himself strangely drawn to these people and manages to transfer onto their course. He begins to befriend the oddball group of rich prodigies: Bunny, Francis, Charles, Camilla and Henry. As he becomes closer to them he begins to suspect they’re keeping certain things from him, and when they reveal how their experiments with the wisdom of the ancients has had terrible consequences, events rapidly snowball until they commit a far greater crime. It’s from here that the weight of these events begin to take their toll…

The plot is unique and compelling, a melange of modern thriller and the classics told through incisive prose and engrossing characters. The protagonists feel tangible and the tension is alive. Tartt’s way with words gets under one’s skin in a haunting and utterly captivating way. The odd slow moments comes but even these are written so expertly that they’re hardly a chore, and the underlying need to know what happens makes them a breeze.

To reveal too much about this novel would do it a disservice. It’s one of those experiences that’s best gone into with no idea of what to expect. Suffice to say that The Secret History is one of the best novels written, combining the intricate world-building of Stephen King with the incisive prose of post-war English writers and the powerful imagery of the classicists with the pace and energy of the best thrillers to create something truly unique; a novel less to be read than to be lived, and a glimpse of literary perfection.



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