Have you read The Secret History? A lot of people have. It was the first novel written by Donna Tartt, acclaimed author of The Goldfinch (which is receiving a movie adaption in 2018 featuring stars such as Ansel Elgort and Finn Wolfhard), and after its publication in 1992, the 592 page book has sold over 5 million copies in 24 different languages around the world.
The novel follows an exclusive group of affluent college students in 1980s Vermont studying ancient greek under an eccentric and elusive classics professor, Julian, who is both charming and unconventional in his methods. Julian regards his students as members of a select secret society, and his students reciprocate his attention with obsessive devotion. "His students -- if they were any mark of his tutelage -- were imposing enough," Tartt writes, "and different as they all were they shared a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm which was not modern in the least but had a strange cold breath of the ancient world; they were magnificent creatures, such eyes, such hands, such looks -- sic oculos, sic ille manus, sic ora fere bat." Our narrator is Richard Pappan, a working class californian boy who struggles desperately to keep up with his new found friends, enthralled with the sophisticated and seemingly limitless lifestyles that his affluent classmates hold. He spins his own story of wealth; He erases the truth of his father working in a gas station and his upbringing in a tract house, and instead weaves himself a fictional Californian youth: swimming pools, orange groves and dissolute show-biz parties. Whatever money he has he spends on designer clothes to further keep up the illusion and consistently lies carelessly about his past, allowing himself to be dragged further and further into the strange lifestyles of his new friends.
However, the main plot of the novel is not about wealthy twenty year olds analysing classical literature, though it may seem that way on first glance. Cut off from the rest of the campus in their elite group, the ‘hook’ of the story is best summed up with it’s opening line;
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
And so, the mystery of how these six revered college students find themselves tied up with a murder of one of their fellow classmates begins to unfold. Donna Tartt immediately draws the reader into her story and doesn’t let them go. This novel seems to have it all; richly drawn characters, an engrossing plot and an extremely vivid and colourful atmosphere all work together to draw you wholly into the world of The Secret History, and you’ll find yourself finishing the (initially daunting) 600 pages craving more and more from this author.
Unfortunately, Tartt is a figure of great mystery, accepting very few interviews and only releasing one book every decade. Since her last book, The Goldfinch, was released in 2013 it is unlikely we will receive any more novels from the Pulitzer Prize-Winning author until at least 2020.
An interesting notion that stood out to me in Tartt’s novel is the deep-rooted nature of the human desire to fit in, emphasised here through the dramatic extreme of sanctifying murder. This is particularly prevalent on the part of Richard; in order to remain part of the privileged and exclusionary group of ‘friends’ that he continually places on a pedestal, he wilfully ignores common morality and humanity - or perhaps more terrifyingly, is so taken by the notion of belonging to a pack that is so elite and above common moral values, that it can actually redefine what is moral and justifiable. In this sense, the young college students are portrayed by Tartt as Godlike; applying the hierarchical classicist ideals of Ancient Greece to a modern day liberal America. Class and hierarchy play large roles unequivocally throughout the novel, which forces us to question the extent to which class shapes and defines people’s fates. Especially considering that the prologue, set in the future with a tone of prophetic doom, makes us aware that these wealthy students have in fact from a legal standpoint ‘got away with murder’.