Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The novel opens with Richard, our narrator and protagonist thinking back on the murder he and his friends committed back in college. From there we go back to how this story began, making this a sort of inverted murder mystery. We know the victim, we know the killers, now we need to find out why.
At a small college in New England, a select group of students study the Classics with Julian, a charismatic professor who is well traveled and well loved by his students. Richard, newly transferred from California with some Greek study in his background wants to join the class, but has to be accepted by Julian personally. When he finally is, he immediately begins to form bonds with Julian's students.
There's Henry, a genius that seems to live more in the world of the classics than in real life. Charles and Camilla are the twins, they are very close and very secretive. Frances, a sensitive young man with access to his aunt's country home is also among the group. And finally, there's Edmund "Bunny" Corcoran. His family maintains an air aristocracy, but appear to be broke, equipping their son with nothing but skills at mooching off of everyone else and a crude sense of humor.
We learn in the first pages that Bunny is the murder victim. After that we go back and get the story about secrets, ancient rituals, and desperation that lead to his demise.

Overall, it's a decent story. In spite of the obvious tension within the story, there were many sections of the book that simply could not keep my attention. Passages meandered and seemed as listless as its characters after a night of bacchanals. Yes, its college student characters are constantly (infuriatingly) drunk or high, especially Richard, the narrator who wanders around getting drunk and doing cocaine for an alarmingly large amount of the time.
It's true that these are young people, and young people tend to experiment, but it seems excessive in Tartt's prose. I also began to wonder why this group of students was considered so elite, other than Henry, there was little to illustrate any impressive aptitude from them.
The novel was structured after a Greek tragedy. Early on Tartt brings up the elements of fate and the possession of a fatal flaw. In a way, looking at a modern situation through a lens of ancient tragedy can work. There is a fatal flaw, there is a fall, there is a noble sacrifice, and there is a sense of repayment and justice in the end.
Tartt is moderately successful at creating this tragic world. Richard serves as our messenger (as every good Greek play should have) who tells us how this tragedy befell our heroes and how they had to pay for it. It wasn't a bad novel. If you enjoy Greek tragedy and murder mysteries, you may find something of interest here. However, it makes sense that this was Tartt's first novel. She shows that she has talent, but she is not entirely successful with her execution.
This is a good novel to compare with Carol Goodman's Lake of Dead Languages which I reviewed a few months ago, as it deals with many similar themes. Although also flawed, I prefer Goodman's novel because of its taut, poetic language.

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