Monday, 2 April 2018

The Secret History

"I hope we're all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?" The Secret History

I've spent this rainy Easter weekend re-reading The Secret History, Donna Tartt's wonderful dark story of the undergraduates who take their studies in Ancient Greek a little too far when they re-enact the bacchanal.  The narrator is Richard Papen, an outsider at an elite liberal arts college in Vermont who falls in love with the wintery landscape and becomes enthralled by a group of five  students; Bunny, Henry, Francis, and twins Charles and Camilla who study Ancient Greek with charming Classics professor Julian Morrow.  The classes are only open to students personally selected by Julian who doesn't take a salary and teaches in a classroom full of flowers.  They dress in a classic English style in quality fabrics, write with old-fashioned pens and exude a cerebral dark glamour.

The novel is relayed retrospectively by Richard in the manner of the unnamed narrator in Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca and this works to great effect.  Like Rebecca, too, nobody is particularly likeable or trustworthy in The Secret History.  Richard  believes he is accepted into the group and begins to study with them and spend weekends at an isolated country house belonging to Francis, but he is unaware of their occasional nightly intoxicated rampages across the countryside based on the ecstatic elements of Greek Dionysia.

The Secret History unfolds into a page-turning whydunnit with dark consequences but it is also an entertaining campus novel and so beautifully written that - along, with Richard Papen - you can almost see the 'Commons clock tower, ivied brick, white spire' of Hampden College and the Vermont nights 'disordered and wild with stars.'

4 comments:

Cath said...

I thought this was excellent when I read it about 10 years ago but am pretty sure it would bear a reread as you've done. I think that goes for a lot of books to be honest. Details become hazy and that seems a shame when a book is so good.

Nadia A said...

I've never read this one and now I'm wondering why not. It sounds wonderful! I'm so happy you posted about it. Plus, the fact that you re-read it shows just how terrific it is. I'm ordering a copy ASAP!

Vintage Reading said...

Hi Cath, I think I've enjoyed it much more as a re-read than I did the first time around. I picked up new layers of meaning and resonances this time. Also, it was too cold to go out over Easter so I gave the book my full attention! Such a page-turner.

Nadia, it's a wonderful read and I think, has something of a cult following. It is dark though!

Nadia A said...

Nicola, I read the book and absolutely LOVED it! I can't stop thinking about it. I have to admit that it reminded me a of Bret Easton Ellis's writing style a bit, which is why I loved when she mentioned him in her dedication. I can definitely see this book having a cult following - how could it not?! I'm so happy you mentioned it, because it made me finally read it and fall in love with it.