book review

The Secret History (1992) | Donna Tartt


I finished reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt a week ago but I wasn’t sure what to say about it until now. It was published in 1992 and is frequently sited as a modern classic, so there’s nothing new I can really contribute with this review, other than recommending it as a must-read for, well, everyone.

This is the quintessential college campus novel. Upon finishing it, I felt oddly delirious with both horror and glee. One gets the feeling that this is a book you either love or hate. I can see why people would hate it; it’s pretentious, it’s uncomfortably excessive in its descriptions of drugs and alcohol, it adulates/pities the idle upper-class and panders to self-righteous academia.

And yet.

The novel is an inverted detective story; it begins with a murder but it’s not about finding the culprit. We know who the culprit(s) are – but we don’t know why.

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of six clever, eccentric students at an elite New England college go beyond the boundaries of normal morality. Through the POV protagonist, Richard Papen, we relive their dark college years as the group slips gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and finally murder.

The Secret History‘s pretentiousness had an almost hypnotic hold over me. I don’t know why I was so invested in these awful people and their depraved little lives and the ways they destroyed each other as they circled the drain of morality and ethics. Donna Tartt’s writing is mesmerising in ways I can’t explain. Perhaps it’s the insight it gives into the minds of rich, arrogant college kids; perhaps it’s because through the bland main character Richard Papen, we can live through his blank slate and get drawn into the circle of secrets and crimes of an almost incestuous group of friends who care only for themselves. We don’t feel alienated by the group of classic majors; we, like Richard, are seduced by them, and are powerless to stop the impending tragedy of fallen Macbeth-like protagonists.

Recommended for people who enjoy depraved, pretentious literature.



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