Donna Tartt, “The Secret History”

“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.”

It’s a great first line. How can you bear not to read further? A few sentences down comes “We hadn’t intended to hide the body where it couldn’t be found.” I’m hooked.

But I’d forgotten that this book is not just compelling, it’s truly sinister. I’d been reminded of it by Tana French’s The Likeness which also features a clannish group of brilliant students who connive at the death of one of their number.  French’s characters, though, have a lot more fun, perhaps because her book has more limited aspirations. It’s as if she can afford to let them play around more because she doesn’t have to use them to make a point.

Tartt’s structure works very well.  I quoted above from the prologue. Then she backs up, gets the narrator (a middle-class Californian: useful to have an outsider to observe the folkways of a precious lower-Vermont liberal arts college) to Hampden College and inserts him into the advanced Greek class where he meets the protagonists. Bunny, the least clever, most ordinary of them, doesn’t die until page 269 though an anonymous Vermonter meets his death in a bacchanal on page 163.  It’s chilling how little any of them cares about the farmer. Bunny, however, becomes not just unattractive but downright menacing so he must also be removed.

What Tartt does brilliantly is lure you into the mental state of these five extremely strange characters. Kids, really, college students: and I suppose their indifference to anyone outside their clique is age-appropriate. Or would be, watered down.  But this is high-grade, wanton disregard. Tartt focuses on the reflexive snobbery that keeps these characters linked, a self-anointed aristocracy of intelligence and taste that is fed by their professor, a truly nasty piece of work.  Face it, if you belong to a group that regularly drops into ancient Greek to preserve secrets from the hoi polloi, your morals may just crumble around the edges.

The writing’s wonderful. Could be irritating if you don’t enjoy florid erudition, but a lot of it is really witty. For instance: in the lengthy denouement (half of the book, really, when everything comes literally unraveled) a drug bust at the college prompts massive destruction of contraband.  “Théophile Gautier, writing about the effects of Vigny’s Chatterton on the youth of Paris, said that in the nineteenth-century night one could practically hear the crack of the solitary pistols: here, now, in Hampden, the night was alive with the flushing of toilets. ” Dark but funny.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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2 Responses to Donna Tartt, “The Secret History”

  1. Pingback: Advice for the Airborne « Book Group of One

  2. Pingback: Donna Tartt, “The Goldfinch” | Book Group of One

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