In some respects, it’s difficult to review The Secret History – Donna Tartt’s 1992 masterpiece that ended up popularising the dark academia sub-genre – because it feels like everything that could have been been said has been said before. But given I took 15 years longer than I intended to get around to reading it, I feel I owe it to anyone who has it waiting on their bookshelves to spend a few words saying ‘pick it up, it deserves the hype!’
The Secret History is a ‘murder mystery in reverse’. We learn on the first page that the protagonist and his friends have committed a murder – of their friend, Bunny Corcoran – and the rest of the book details how they came to do it, and what happened after.
“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 set in an elite liberal arts college in New England in the eighties. Our narrator, Richard Papen, comes to the college from a poorer background than most, and becomes obsessively enamoured with a clique of students who comprise the Ancient Greek class, and with their enigmatic, charismatic teacher, Julian Morrow. When Richard finally manages to join the class, he has to give up ties to almost all other subjects and teachers in a way that feels like pledging allegiance, or joining a cult. At first he revels in their picturesque and idyllic existence, but soon dark secrets start to emerge… secrets that eventually lead to the group murdering one of their own.
There is so much that is masterful about this novel. The fact that we know about Bunny’s murder from the beginning and yet tension is still palpable in the lead up to it. The way Tartt writes us from the normal to the ridiculous – from a set of college students enjoying a summer to their collaboration in a murder – in a way that is entirely believable. The absolutely immersive writing, with settings so sensuous you feel yourself there. The humour leaping from the shadows of this dark tale.
“It is easy, even now, for me to remember what their daily routines, which subsequently became my own, were like. Regardless of circumstance they lived like clockwork… Up until the very end there was always, always, Sunday-night dinner at Charles and Camilla’s, except on the evening of the murder itself, when no one felt much like eating and it was postponed until Monday.”
This is one of those novels where I expect the second reading to be more immersive – in some respects – than the first. Much is done in foreshadowing, and many of the questions I have at the end of the book (eg. the extent to which the whole tragedy was understood – or perhaps even subtly engineered – by the Greek teacher) will have a different answer for different readers, but will be probably reached on a second reading more than on the first. It’s a book that references classical stories throughout, particularly the Bacchae, but others too, and with the tantalising ends of these threads of meaning scattered everywhere, there seems to be an almost unending possibility for discussion and discovery.
It’s a book I’ll want to come back to, one that invites theories and analyses… which will of course be different for every reader. But alongside this quite scholarly depth, it is also a gripping murder non-mystery. A thrilling we-know-whodunnit. Pick it up if you want to be immersed for a time in a beautiful, dark and suspenseful story.