Title: The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt
Published: Viking, 1992; My edition Penguin Books, 1993
Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is the original American campus novel. When Richard Papen joins an elite group of clever misfits at his New England college, it seems he can finally become the person he wants to be. But the moral boundaries he will cross with his new friends – and the deaths they are responsible for – will change all of their lives forever. The Secret History recounts the terrible price we pay for mistakes made on the dark journey to adulthood.
The Secret History was first published in 1992. During my reading of the book, I originally actually thought it was older than that and I found it quite difficult to place the time setting of the novel. I thought it was set maybe in the fifties or sixties, based on some personality traits of the characters, and some of the references. However, there were other hints there that pointed me more towards the eighties.
600+ pages in this one, however I did read it relatively quickly. It was easy to read, well written and not a lot of what I think of as literary ‘dancing’ – wandering around a point and taking a long time to get from A to B.
It was pegged as “the original American campus novel”. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this isn’t true, but I’m not sure I would have called it that as a selling point. It was set at a university, and the characters did attend classes. For me there were two major characteristics of the plot – firstly the setting, where the group all met, and I suppose as a central point to help define their age, maturity, life stage, and what they have in common. Secondly the murder – we turned fairly abruptly to a crime focus.
I did enjoy the book. The main character is Richard, who changes colleges after commencing his studies in medicine and finding a, shall we say, lack of affinity for the medical profession. He stumbles across a group of students isolated from the larger student body, by their study of Classic Greek, and their eccentric tutor. Richard joins this class of only a handful of other students and becomes more and more entwined in their social group.
He makes friends with them somewhat out of necessity, as the Greek tutor requires them to study all of their subjects with him and him alone. As Richard has come along after the original 5 students had already established themselves, for the rest of the book he always seems just on the peripheries of the group. He narrates the book, sometimes for me more of an observer than an active part.
The book is an interesting study in behaviour, and how a major distressing event – in this case a murder – can cause the group to come to rely and depend on each other, and the stress that can cause on those relationships. Fascinating.
As much as I didn’t necessarily understand the choices these kids made, there was something about them I could relate to, sympathise with.