I had high hopes of this book – the critics loved it, various friends recommended I read it and I loved THE GOLDFINCH. In so many ways it lived up to, and even exceeded, my expectations, but it also left me feeling a little dissatisfied. For whilst reading THE SECRET HISTORY has been a huge pleasure, somehow the overall effect is not quite the sum of its parts.
It goes without saying that Tartt’s writing is sublime. Her attention to detail means that we physically inhabit the Hampden university campus where the novel is set, can perfectly picture everything from its clock tower, green shutters and Vermont light, down to patterned china that says so much about each of the various locations where the story unfolds, and the grooves in the battered mirror that some of the students use to snort coke. This effect is further enhanced by the narrator, Richard, immediately taking us into his confidence – from the outset we learn his darkest secret and that this is the story of a murder in which he has been complicit. We are given access to the inner sanctum of the small group of classics students to which Richard belongs, to the wisdom of their brilliant and charismatic tutor Julian Morrow, who exerts enormous influence over each of the young men and women who take his classes. And we become part of their elite club, sharing in their experiences, participating in their education, caught up in the short lived but emotionally intense bubble that is their self-absorbed, youthful friendship, where they are at the centre of everything and everything is possible.
The back cover of my edition of the novel calls it a thinking persons’ thriller and certainly the quotations, references to Greek myths, obsession with human, natural and poetic beauty, and the rich seams of philosophy and history, mark THE SECRET HISTORY out as different from your usual book of this genre. It’s not an inaccessible book though and the big themes it tackles – the nature of fate, duty, sacrifice, loyalty – are finely balanced with a beautifully paced, gripping narrative that builds to the murder we first learn about in the book’s opening pages, then takes us yet further still as we find out whether those responsible will get away with it. It’s unusual in that rather than finding out who committed murder we are compelled to turn each page because we want to find out why, something I found particularly appealing. Tartt herself describes THE SECRET HISTORY as “not a whodunit [but a] whydunit.”
In Richard we find a passionate narrator. Far more likeable than the rest of the group – aloof, controlling Henry, the twins Charles and Camilla, neurotic Francis and Bunny, who ends up dead – our sympathies lie with him as an outsider, flattered by the others’ friendship, hopeful some of their allure will rub off on him. And yet even Richard is immoral, selfish, weak, an impression that grows stronger as we journey with him and share his insight into his friends motivations for murder, as well as his own. Penniless and without any family support, he arrives in Hampden with dreams aplenty and plans to “fabricate a new and far more satisfying history”. With hindsight he tells us how all that potential for any number of stories was soon reduced to just the one, and how he has never managed to walk away from it.
The book’s opening is arresting, touching and a glimpse into the ruin and despair that awaits Richard and his friends. It closes with an enigmatic dream in which Henry tells Richard neither are happy. Each page in between is clever, well crafted, controlled and profound. The critics are right, I am glad my friends recommended it, yet somehow I feel let down on finishing THE SECRET HISTORY. Perhaps there’s something missing. It’s like the most incredible journey you ever made, without the joy of arriving. The most stunning of landscapes where nothing stands out. Or perhaps it’s that there’s a tension between a plot that hinges on a moment of unbound pagan ecstasy and that I am enthralled by the words Tartt puts on the page, in thrall to force that is THE SECRET HISTORY. The book is captivating but it holds me captive too – meaning that, like Richard, I am haunted as much by what might have been, as by the story itself.
Without a doubt, this novel deserves all the accolades it has attracted. Without a doubt I will read it again and again. And with a different set of expectations, without a doubt I’ll appreciate it even more. For different reasons, some books are even better the second time around and I think this may well be one of them.