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March 26, 2018 | by  | in Arts Books | [ssba]

The Secret History by Donna Tartt


Each month, the Salient books team are going to review the books on the program for the Vic Books 2018 Book Club. The books on the list have been chosen because they are ones that you might have heard of or read, but are ones that have not become household names when they perhaps should have.

The first book on the list is The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Published in 1992, The Secret History was an overnight sensation and quickly became a modern classic, but over the past 25 years it is slipping out of favour with readers and literary circles for its themes of elitism and privilege, overought classical references, and inaccessible narrative.  

The Secret History follows a group of six entitled, isolated, and down-right abominable students — Henry, Camilla, Charles, Francis, Bunny, and Richard — at a Liberal Arts college in Vermont, who study classics in cult-like conditions under the mysterious Julian.

The novel is narrated by Richard, the newest member to this elite circle, who retraces the year leading up to the murder of one of the group — Bunny. This is not a spoiler — Tartt lets you know from the very first page that there was a murder, but who the killer is, and why they did it, is unknown.

While the premise of a murder mystery (as a fan of crime fiction and non-fiction) would usually draw me immediately to the book, and make me want to read through it as quickly as possible, The Secret History has other ideas.

This book is difficult. It is difficult to read, the characters are difficult to like, the classical and literary references are difficult to understand, and this makes the book very unapproachable and challenging.

And Tartt does not make it any easier. She is constantly playing tricks on you as a reader, which does not make it any easier to get into. It is not just the murderer that lurks within the narrative, but Tartt as well. She feels three to three hundred steps ahead of you, and frankly I felt that I was too dumb to understand everything that was going on.

Tartt’s construction of the characters as these deplorable figures is perhaps the only thing I enjoyed about the novel. She clearly does not want you to like these six characters, and if you or anyone else you know can relate to them, then this should raise major alarm bells. Their deception, hidden agendas, and revelry in the depraved and immoral acts that they commit is still quite fascinating to follow.

I feel like I should like this book, and I tried very, very hard to like it, but I didn’t. The narrative is so bogged down, reading it feels like crawling through mud. The characters and their lavish lifestyles feel completely alien and unrealistic. I just don’t believe the hype.

In all honesty, I only finished it because I needed to write the review. My dedication to this column is unwavering.


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