Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Book cover of The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Sometimes you buy a book based on an interesting synopsis or even a beautiful cover; a recommendation from a friend maybe. Then again, every so often a book crops up that you know absolutely nothing about but you read it anyway just because it's within easy reach of your oh-so-lazy self. The Secret History was just such a book. Charlotte recommended it to me, but only in passing and in the vaguest of ways. The blurb tells you absolutely nothing and the cover is hardly descriptive. And yet this modern classic ended up being one of the best written and enigmatic books I've read this year.

Plot summary: Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and forever.

Hardly specific. Yet I do think that's an asset for The Secret History. With some books you need to begin with an understanding of the general direction of the story, but here I loved just settling back for the journey. I didn't know what The Point was, the tone or even what genre it was going to end up (and that's still under dispute), but that meant every development and twist was a complete and absolute surprise.

The prologue threw me a little in that respect. I suppose I was expecting something very academic and perhaps relationship-related, and the very dramatic and adventure-type-novel tone of the prologue threw me a little. In all honesty I nearly didn't continue with the book at all. However, I've stated time and time again that the first thing I'll do as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is to completely outlaw both epilogues and prologues alike, and I think that my point in that respect is proved with The Secret History.

The book itself is certainly not even remotely adventure-ish. It has quite a slow plot with not a great deal of action, but you feel the twists in the plot like a punch to the stomach. The story is built up ever-so-slowly with a lot of discussion about classic philosophers and morality that occasionally went over my head. It's not to a book to pick up when you're sleepy as it would be almost impossible to follow.

I listened, a bit affronted by his tone. To do what he asked was tantamount to my transferring entirely out of Hampden College into his own little academy of ancient Greek, student body five, six including me. 'All my classes with you?' I said.
'Not quite all of them,' he said seriously, and then laughed when he saw the look on my face. 'I believe that having a great diversity of teachers is harmful and confusing for a young mind, in the same way I believe that it is better to know one book intimately than a hundred superficially,' he said. 'I know the modern world tends not to agree with me, but after all, Plato had only one teacher, and Alexander.' 

Don't let that put you off though. The tension and the atmosphere is almost tangible, and without doubt the best thing about this novel. I put down the book and still felt the pressure to keep hold of all the dark secrets I'd been told in confidence through reading. It's a masterpiece of storytelling, it really is.   

The various relationships, secrets, plots and betrayals loosely demonstrate the Greek tragedies which are, after all, the theme of the book. It's not something I picked up upon until I sat down afterwards to consider exactly why The Secret History works so well, but I eventually clicked onto the way it shadows the very concept under discussion. It's actually kind of perfect.

The characters aren't exactly likeable; in fact, they're the very opposite. Then again, the Greek heroes were hardly the epitome of charm and goodness. Except when they transformed into swans and raped women, obviously. It adds to the story to a certain extent though. It adds a certain distance between the characters and the reader, much as though you were studying their actions in an academic context. 

All in all, I love the formal but clever tone and the aura of darkness that surrounds the story. There are lots of twists and secret revelations, but it's the stunning prose that really makes The Secret History what it is. It does require you to take your time while reading it, but I promise you that it's worth every second.

Read a much more eloquent review at The Lit Addicted Brit.


  1. Pssh to "more eloquent" - I *always* think you do a much better job of coming across as really loving a book. I absolutely agree with you about the ties to Greek tragedies - loose but so, so clever. And the writing! Brilliant.

    Seriously, though, I so adored this book and I love how both you and my Dad texted me at the end and were like "OMG - *****!" Except for the fact that he is an older man and texts like one, your texts were so similar that it was the best. And now I know for definite that you both loved it as much as me!!

    I kind of agree with you on prologues (particularly this prologue) but I do like a good epilogue (particularly this epilogue)...don't get me wrong, I would still totally vote for you as Prime Minister but I'd sort of secretly be hoping for an epilogue-accepting coalition.

    Incidentally, I was going to be The Goldfinch the other day but when Laura and me found it in Waterstones I realised that it is HUGE! I mean really - have you seen the size of it?! I'm sure it's excellent and the reviews of it that I've seen are all glowing but I'm not so keen on breaking my wrists to enjoy it. Hello, ebook!

    1. AAAAARGH YES CHARLOTTE. I nearly bought it in Tesco last week, but the sheer size of it did put me off a bit. Not because I can't read it like that - it didn't stop me with Harry Potter, after all - but because if I adore it it's going to take up that much shelf space for ever more. I'm still in two minds about getting it now anyway, but I think maybe, for the sake of my pitiful shelving arrangements, a paperback copy might be more prudent. *looks wistfully at The Goldfinch again, rends garments, tortured soul etc etc*

    2. Yes, but you do a better job of coming across as actually having READ the book :/

      Yeah, I just HAD to text you at the end. It was really odd and it didn't quite fit with the rest of it, but almost in a good way? Not like I read it IN JUNE or anything, so excuse my lapse of memory. I swear next year I'm so definitely staying on top of my reviews.

      What was the epilogue for this book? I can't remember. See above. My main epilogue-hate comes from Harry Potter but I didn't want to bring down the tone of the review with a Potter Rant :)

      You were going to be the goldfinch? Awesome! Take a photo of you flapping your arms like wings and cooing...

      Sorry for making fun (not very cleverly) of your typo, but it was a fun head image :) I did see the size of it, but only when I ambled past it without really looking. I don't even know what it's about and only know it exists because it was stamped on a padded envelope from Harper (or somewhere) last week.

    3. Ellie - It's in Tesco? Huh. Now THAT changes things...

    4. Haha, I think that should be our new inspirational motto. "BE THE GOLDFINCH!" :)

      Yes, it's in Tesco. £9 or something, I think. I'm soooooo tempted, I know I'll almost definitely give in next time we have to head over there for something. :D

  2. YEEEEES! This is one of my top three favourite books OF ALL TIME, I'm so glad you loved it too! I didn't know anything about it AT ALL - I read it for a book club when I was a teenager, and we chose it because it was on the BBC Big Read's top 100, that's as far as my knowledge went - and I was convinced it was going to be super-dull. But lo! I was absolutely hooked, tumbled out the other end in shock, and wound up immediately catapulting it onto my list of "books I will love forever and ever amen." I've already read it twice and it's now ON MY LITTLE BOOKSHELF to reread again this winter. YAY ALL THE SECRET HISTORY LOOOOOOOVE! :)

    1. Ohhhh I want to be in a book club! We should totally have an online book club and do a read-a-long every month! Pretty much just because I'm loving reading the same book at the same time as you two right now, but hey ho :)

      To be fair to it, it does LOOK dull. Tiny, dense font and a drab cover? Bah. You've read it twice already though? Now that's impressive!

    2. It's such a fantastic book! My mum had a short-lived book club when she still worked at the hospital, but people were always crying off (or not reading the book) so they gave up after a few months. I was the honorary member because I was only a teenager, but they all knew me anyway and I LOVED reading. We should do an online book club, you're right. Maybe we could organise it post-Christmas and read a book a month TOGETHER? That would be super cool and make blogging EVEN MORE FUN. :)

    3. Hmm. This could totally be done. People could join up and then we take it in turns to pick the next book to be read, from any genre of your choice, but then obviously other members could opt out if they don't want to read it.

      And then making a post about that book could be entirely optional, but we could have a join e-mail going round where we could talk about it as a conversation, not just a series of posts!

    4. I just like the idea of reading stuff at the same time as other people again! Technically you've got the Dickens as your book club in December, so we've got a while to think it through! :)

  3. I think I have this one? But I might not? I have something.. similar? Um.. I forgot what it's about but I won it in a Twitter giveaway. Mine might be the history of angels or somesuch, who knows? xD

    Anyway, instantly voting you for Prime Minister but only if you give epilogues the occasional benefit of the doubt (that phrase suddenly looks really wrong to me, hey ho) as I really liked the one in Harry Potter! Kind of. It was nice to see where everybody was in the future at the very least.

    Well.. whether I own the book or not, I'm going to find out because it sounds right up my street. :)

  4. I read this AND The Little Friend waaay before blogging, so predictably I can't remember much about the plot, but just the feeling of OMG YES that Donna Tartt generally gives me in my brain now means I know that they were both excellent.

    This is a really helpful comment, I realise, but I've been saving this post all week cause I can't comment on my phone, so I HAD to say something about it! Glad you loved it, anyway.


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