The Secret History by Donna Tartt: A Review

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The Secret History

Donna Tartt

Six Word Summary: Greek students kill two, feel bad

I rate it: C+

The short of it: A cozy, yet bleak story of human psychology, not too memorably told­­­

I finished The Secret History two days ago, and while I was completely hooked for the three days it took me to read it, I find that there is not much I really have to say about the book. While the story is interesting, and the characters are well drawn, the book did not make me feel anything. And this is really strange, because I’m the sort of person who gets so involved in the characters of any book I am currently reading or have recently read, that I have conversations with them in public vehicles, and often it come to blows. And I do not mean that the book was written with a light touch, like Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending , which caressed you like soft waves and then melted away, leaving a sense of calm wonder and sorrow. The Secret History was written by talented writer who knows how to tell a story, certainly, but somewhere down the line she forgot to breathe life into this story or the people in it, which is very unfortunate, because the novel is people centric rather than event centric.

The Ancient Greek department of Hampden College is not like the other departments, it comprises of just five students, beautiful, white, immensely rich, and very sophisticated. Handpicked by the elitist, snobbish professor Julian, this group worships beauty above all else. But beauty and ugly are the two sides of the same coin, and an accident during an ancient rite that leads to the gruesome death of a stranger means that this group has to keep a terrible, ugly, and very dangerous secret from the rest of the world. But when the irresponsible words and actions of one member put everyone else’s safety in jeopardy, they have to put on their murdering boots again, this time for a premeditated, cold-blooded slaughter. (not a spoiler by the way, this is revealed in the very first page). But murder of another human being never goes unpunished, and the group descends into a Dostovosky-like spiral of guilt, fear, and recrimination.

The human psychology angle is done very nicely, and the stages of planning for the murder were breathtakingly exciting. The thing that killed the book for me, however, was that the not a single character was likable, or even remotely recognizable. Bunny, the murdered character, is such an annoying asshole that you want to kill him yourself , and hence you get the feeling that the grief and regret expressed by his killers who claimed to genuinely have loved him, is fake. Then you have Henry, a superior bastard who must act detached and aloof to show he is more learned than everybody else. Francis is the token gay person in any elitist group, who must paw at all his male friends when he gets the chance because gay people do that, apparently. Charles and Camilla, fraternal twins, indulge in occasional twincest, which was hugely foreshadowed by their parents, because why else would you name siblings Charles and Camilla in the 90’s? The narrator, Richard, is so desperate to suck up to this group that he bluffs about his origins, pretending to be from a very rich family when his dad works in a gas pump. The group never feel any regret for the first killing, because it was a farmer who died, not a great philosopher or scholar. They merely feel mild terror of getting caught. A bunch of superior, capricious, amoral, self-centered, melodramatic, and pretentious bores, they do nothing but smoke, drink, snort cocaine, and pass judgment on normal people, whom they deem crass, like the family of their murdered friend (you have to have serious gall to kill somebody’s son and brother, and then roll your eyes at them), or the replacement professor who tries to help them the best he can.

This book made a huge splash when it came out in 1992, and people still recommend it. It is easy to see why, it’s a cozy read, well written, well paced, but when you bite into it, it is so devoid of the juice of genuine human emotions, that you have to chew and chew and chew it till you feel like a cow with cud in your mouth.

Who is The Secret History in my group of friends? That sorry guy who acts superior and aloof just to prove that he has more substance than he actually does.

Read it if: you like novels about human psychology and pseudo-sophisticated college kids

Don’t read it if: you like to get involved with characters

-Amrita “ανία” Kanjilal

ανία is greek for great gaping boredom, apparently.

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