Ancient Greeks, murderous geeks: The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Are all Classics students this creepy?
Donna Tartt’s international bestseller, The Secret History (1992), is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. Maybe ever. I’ll try to summarise it but I doubt I’ll be able to do this novel justice:
Steeped in ancient Greek allegory, The Secret History is a murder mystery in reverse. Someone is dead, though the how’s and why’s are unclear. As Richard Papen reveals little by little the details of his year studying Greek at Hampden College, his absorption into a cult-like group of Classics students sees the boundaries of morality pushed to the very limit.
The Secret History and I have been attached at the hip for the past week. I’ve literally been desperate to find out what happens to Bunny, old Richard and weird Henry, so I’ve carried it around with me everywhere. Hats off to Donna Tartt. I’ve never read her work before, but I feel like there’s a lot to be said for an author that literally reveals exactly what’s going to happen on the first page of the prologue and still keeps you guessing until the very last moment. Tartt is a master of suspense; I genuinely had no idea how this book was going to evolve and I LOVED IT.
'It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely?'
Prior to reading this, my knowledge of Ancient Greece extended to owning Disney’s Hercules on DVD when I was little. While this is undoubtedly a banger of a film, the limited info it provided meant that I spent a lot of my time wikipedia-ing all the references made. I didn’t mind doing this, as with my new-found knowledge of the ancient world, I can confidently say that though the Greeks did a lot of messed up things, the kids in The Secret History are on another level. We’re talking creepy, bacchanal rituals (I had to google it), weird sexual relations (I won’t say who, but it’s not cute) and a gruesome murder looming over the plot. This a group of very clever people doing very bad things.
“It is easy to see things in retrospect. But I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen. Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together–my future, my past, the whole of my life–and I was going to sit up in bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!”
Our protagonist is Richard, a regular boy from California who apparently gets involved with the wrong crowd. I thought I knew who he was, but having finished the novel, I’m puzzled. While the story is told entirely from his perspective, we never really get a sense of who he is or what his motives are. From what I can remember, I don’t think Tartt ever gives us a description of Richard, so leaving him as kind of a blank canvas makes me wonder what I would have done had I been in his position (sorry this is so vague, I don’t want to give the plot away). In contrast to the other characters, who were easy to read and just seemed like big weirdos, who is the real Richard? What does he want? Is he a good person? Your guess is as good as mine.
The only other thing I can say about The Secret History without spoiling the plot is that it is honestly an incredible novel and I could not recommend it more. You must read it for yourself. Please. Pop it in your Amazon basket and thank me later.