Whenever I read lists of the best books ever, Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History‘ often makes an appearance. It was published in 1992 and became a bestseller. I’ve avoided tackling it before now as I’ve gathered from reviews and comments that it is rather an intellectual book. Having eventually finished the novel, my conclusion is that my reservations were largely well founded.
Richard Papen narrates the story; he is an outsider, but is gradually drawn into an elite group of Classical Greek scholars, whose classes are taught solely by the charismatic Julian Morrow. Inspired by the ancient Greek influences of Dionysus, the God of wine and ecstasy, the students try to create their own Bacchanal, a drunken revel whose participants indulge in sexual experimentation and drug-taking. They succeed, but in doing so, a man is murdered. In order to cover up the murder, the students then have to eliminate one of their own small class. This is not a spoiler, as the reader knows from the very outset that Bunny has been killed. The novel explores the events leading up to and following his death.
In saying what I really think about this book, I am anxious not to be written off as a dullard. It is true that I have not studied Classics since Dotty Daniels’ lessons in Year 8 (the 2nd year in my day!) and my knowledge has not expanded greatly since then. This did mean that some of the classical references and analogies in ‘The Secret History’ were all Greek to me; but not all of them and I don’t think it was this which prevented my enjoyment of the novel. I totally failed to engage with any of the dysfunctional characters, whose internal life remains largely unexplored. They are self-obsessed, have dubious morals, spend 90% of the time drunk, stoned, asleep or eating and the other 10% being generally languid – à la Sebastian Flyte, only with less charm. The first half of the book was far better than the second but by the time I had waded to the 628th page, I was so bored I think my eyeballs were actually bleeding.
My only concern now is that I also have Tartt’s third novel, ‘The Goldfinch‘ perched on a shelf next to me, rustling its feathers and fixing me with its beady,black eye. It has 844 pages but honestly, it will be a while before I can tackle any more Tartt-ness.