Review: The Secret History

Ellen Birch 8 October 2017

Summer break is often the time we begin to work through or revisit all those novels we’ve always meant to read. This summer I caught up with a modern classic: Donna Tartt’s compelling novel The Secret History. The premise; a collection of students at an elite college in New England who take their studies in Classics, under an enigmatically influential and profoundly selective professor, to a real and extreme level. I therefore thought this book the perfect read with the prospect of beginning my first year at Cambridge. Now, I’m not saying by any means that the dark and murderous events which Tartt unfurls through her protagonist Richard’s flawed narrative are reflective of the typical Cambridge undergraduate experience, however I ask you to humour my comparison for the sake of this review.

Tartt defies the typical trope of a thriller by revealing the assumed climax of the story within the first line; a boy called Bunny has died. More specifically, he has been murdered. I feel that the book’s depth comes from the reader’s complicity in the events and ultimate crime, Tartt often using the second person in phrases such as ‘you know’ to create a confidentiality and intimacy between the reader and narrator. This conspiratorial engagement only makes this enthralling novel harder to put down. Tartt plays with the ‘third wall’ in the book: we are simultaneously onlookers and intimate insiders, a conscious nod to the role of the reader who also bears witness to the cold-blooded events which occur. This adds an unsettling sadism: like Richard, we are immersed in the events which unfold like a Greek tragedy.

The narrator, Richard, is prone to ‘romanticising’, sometimes perhaps going as far as to ‘falsify’ characters, either due to his own ideals of what he desires those around him to be, or through a need to convince the reader of the righteousness of his own morally perverse actions. In the epilogue, he openly acknowledges his authorial role and power over the shaping of events. He states ‘of course, it would be easy for [him]… to falsify’ characters and events, ‘although it wasn’t at all the truth’. This unreliable narration is felt keenly throughout. Richard acknowledges that a quality he shares with Julian is an ‘inability to see anyone, or anything, in it’s true light’ which for me created a constant ambiguity as to the true nature of characters and events. An underlying sense of distrust for the narrative voice adds an addictive intrigue to this multifaceted thriller.

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’.

Overall, Tartt has devised a compelling novel filled with thrill, suspense and intrigue, making it an enjoyable and addictive read. Yet beneath these literary pleasures lay multi-layered questions about human nature and concepts of morality. With the beginning of term upon us, for readers of this book who are embarking on the beginning of their university experience or those returning from their break, the only moral to take from this story is this: be careful who you befriend in freshers’ week, lest you get caught up in a Delphian plot of intrigue and cold-blooded murder.