Saturday 23 November 2013

'The Secret History' by Donna Tartt

The Secret History  has a powerful opening - you know which character is going to die before you know anything about any of them, and you know the narrator was involved in the murder. This affects the way the reader sees the characters - throwing a sense of apprehension and anticipation over the rest of the action, and making you wonder what happened to the group of friends to make them kill one of their own.

Our narrator, Richard Papen, has just arrived at Hampden, a small college in Vermont, at the start of the novel. He soon joins the small and incredibly select set of Classics students. Already a sense of isolation begins to seep in - this small cluster of students are very much separate from the other students and teachers. They form something of a cult around their teacher, Julian Morrow, who they hold on a pedestal. This sense of isolation is increased greatly when Richard stays in Vermont over winter, almost killing himself with exposure to the cold. When everything starts to go wrong there is nobody to turn to, and yet it's not until quite late in the novel that he seems to realise quite how cut off from the rest of the college they are, and begins to question his somewhat rash decision to join the Classics class.

There's a real sense of innocence when he first joins Hampden - as you'd expect, he wants to be accepted by his fellow students. Many young readers will sympathise with his worries about friends moving away and getting married after college - acts he considers 'treacherous' (why can't life stay exactly as it is?). It is sad to see the innocence stripped away as he despairs later at the thought of being stuck with them forever, their terrible secret providing an everlasting bond.

I got slightly fed up half way through - their nonchalance at the first murder seemed unrealistic and made the characters feel one dimensional. None of them are particularly likeable, meaning their impending doom didn't come with much of an emotional punch. However, their gradual disintegration in the latter part of the novel is very well written, and you do feel sorry for Richard as he is drawn in to their dangerous game, and manipulated in to a precarious position.

Well written and intelligent, albeit perhaps a little unnecessarily long, this is certainly an impressive debut, but not, for me, life changing.

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