The Books that Built the Blogger: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.

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When I was in my final year at Queens University in Belfast, my reading habit really took hold. My modules meant that the style of books I was reading was expanding and I really started buying books in earnest. Most days saw me browsing in the University Bookshop near my student flat, buying books because I liked the name, or the cover, or had heard of the author but hadn’t read their work yet.

I can’t remember what drew me to The Secret History by Donna Tartt – the cover was austere, verging on the dull and I had never heard of the author, but something about the title and the premise appealed to me so I bought it on a whim. When at last I read it, it was more than I could have hoped for and it has become the book I have reread most; the book I have lent to friends most and oddly, my comfort read. The Secret History is the book I credit with sparking my interest in crime fiction and it contains themes that have become my favourite in literature – from the campus setting to the unreliable narrator. I have loved Tartt’s other books, but for me, nothing comes close to the power of The Secret History.

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The story is the perfect blend of intellectual pursuit and page-turning thrills as it tells the story of a close knit group of classics students at a private college in Vermont, who, under the influence of their charismatic tutor Julian, kill a man during a Bacchanalian rite and then are forced to turn on one of their own. Taking the themes and atmospheres of classical literature, the book is a brooding, menacing, wildly intelligent tale told in fresh and vibrant prose.

This was my first introduction to the ‘campus novel’ and I was intrigued by the golden glow of this Vermont world, the picturesque setting and the fiercely intelligent students. The campus novel also intrigues because it captures that moment in time when you are set free to learn and play and experiment and work out who you really are. While reading The Secret History, I was planning the next stage of my life – moving to a new city on my own to do a Masters and I could relate to this idea that I was teetering on the edge of new horizons where anything might be possible.

It is easy to see things in retrospect. But I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen. Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together–my future, my past, the whole of my life–and I was going to sit up in bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!

The Secret History also introduced me to the narrator as outsider, as potentially unreliable and questionable. Richard, in the prologue, tells us of a murder ‘for which I was partly responsible’ and the joy of the book comes from the apprehension of the ‘why’ rather than the surprise of the ‘what’. Richard, like the reader, is perfectly suited to be entranced by this group of students. He has no other friends, is not close with his family and is ready to create a new narrative for his life. He becomes subsumed in this smart, conceited group and like Nick in The Great Gatsby, he is drawn to their beauty until he cannot look away.

It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves?

This is Richard’s fatal flaw – like all great Greek heroes, he has one – he feels ordinary against the beauty of his friends. He never quite feels deserving. All his hopes are projected on to them and the fact of being a member of their group is enough for him to go along with whatever they say. I have often thought of The Secret History as a companion piece to Lord of the Flies where the isolation of the group is not geographical, but intellectual, and where left to their own devices, the group will eventually turn on itself.

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Donna Tartt

 

By aligning the reader with Richard, Tartt invites us, like him, to join this charismatic, elegant select group, to be a witness to their secret history and keep it close. We are in her confidence and we are in awe. She takes you back to that time where everything felt possible and everything seemed perfect and where the idea of growing up and growing apart was impossible to bear.

The Secret History is 25 years old this year and in my mind has become a classic novel and an unforgettable novel, one that I plan on reading again and again.

 

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49 thoughts on “The Books that Built the Blogger: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  1. The one and only Tartt novel I’ve read, and that at roughly the same time as you, it was like being mesmerised by a snake, so powerful was its poisonous amoral meme. I’ve resisted revisiting it but having reacquired a copy recently I’m tempted by it, interested to see what my response now would be. Especially now I’ve read that other ‘Secret History’ of Procopius. Thanks for the reminder and the quotes.

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  2. My sister, who is not much of a reader, lent me this book not long after it was published. She was raving about, so I knew it must be a special book to hold her attention. She was right. I remember loving this book and then, because I was a bookseller at the time, pressing it into the hands of many customers! I must reread it st some point because I don’t remember much of the detail, but reading your thoughts about the book has helped me recall what it was that I liked about it.

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  3. Such an interesting comparison with Lord of the Flies, Cathy. You’ve made me want to go back and read the book again. Like, Kim, I was a bookseller when it was first published in the UK. It was the subject of a huge amount of hype about which I tend to be very cynical (both then and now) but it actually lived up to the superlatives. A rare thing!

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  4. Lovely post! I also read and loved this back when it came out, but having been disappointed by her second and actively disliking her third, I’ve never had the courage to go back and re-read this one. Maybe one day, but it might be better if I just leave the memory intact… 🙂

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  5. This is on my classic club list as a re-read as I remember loving it when it came out but not much about the story. This has convinced me I should definitely be picking up a copy.

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  6. How interesting, though I can’t believe it’s that old! I didn’t fancy it when it came out (hm, I was 20, probably why in a way) and have never read it, so it’s fascinating to read about the effect it’s had on your life and reading.

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  7. I know I’ve read it but I cant honestly recall being as bowled away by it as you were. It might have been simply one of those cases where I was not in a receptive mood – that happens often and then if I read the book again years later I realise what I missed

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  8. I read this book right after it came out. I must say that I am probably one of the few who didn’t enjoy it. There was no character in the book I found redeemable. I kept hoping against hope one of the characters would change. They didn’t. Maybe the reason I didn’t like it was that I was older and I just couldn’t identify with the characters at all. The same goes for me and “The Catcher in the Rye”.

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  9. I loved this book! I remember when it came out; I was in college and a friend of mine had an advanced copy. I fell in love with the settings and the characters and the beautiful way it’s written. Perfect college read, it’s so dark and tormented. I just wish I liked Tartt’s other books more.

    I also love the idea for these posts. You’ve got me thinking about the books that have shaped me.

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  10. The Secret History has introduced me to the beauty of DESCRIPTIVE narration. Reading the novel, I felt as though every passage was an artwork in its own right from the picturesque imagery of Vermont to the stunningly vivid descriptions of the murder scene. Although The Goldfinch is my personal favorite, The Secret History is the book I find myself reading time and time again 🙂

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