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.
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.
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.
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.