‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History is a terrific autumn, back-to-school read. At once pulpy and thoughtful, The Secret History is the ideal book to ease you into autumn’s cooler, saner days after a summer of more frivolous, light reading.
At its heart, The Secret History tells the story of a murder. This may seem humdrum enough, but instead of telling the story as a mystery, The Secret History is an exploration of the psyche—it’s a whydunit, not a whodunit. From the very first pages, readers are introduced to the murderers, the victim, and how/when he dies. The rest of the novel seeks to explain how they all got to that point and what happened after. Tartt is less concerned with the act itself and more interested in what could possibly compel seemingly sane people to commit such an act. And what happens to seemingly sane people after they do.
The whole book takes place over the course of about two semesters at fictional Hampden College in New England and focuses on the select group of students studying classics. It’s an almost impossibly erudite subject, particularly for something as potentially popular as a murder mystery, and Tartt works wonders in fully immersing her characters and her readers in the intense world of academic Greek and Latin. The characters often speak to each other in Attic Greek and the fact that nothing about that seems strange or heavy-handed is a real testament to Tartt.
Tartt does similarly marvelous things in creating her characters, with even briefly-appearing characters given depth and back story. You get the impression that description is her favorite thing, rather than plot. Places, people, and moods are described with remarkable love and grace—you just want her to go on about them forever. The plot itself moves along, and is plenty fascinating as these things go, but Tartt’s beautiful writing itself is what really makes The Secret History shine.
So if you’re looking for an immersive reading experience that will make you long for sweaters, armchairs and tea, piles of dead leaves, and the quietness of autumn, look no further than The Secret History. It’s a nearly perfect book—so much so that I can’t quite articulate all that’s good about it. Just give it a go and you’ll see what I mean. And, unlike the main characters, you certainly won’t regret it.