The Secret History - Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt's novel, The Secret History, is the story of an academically elite group of college students, who all exhibit varying degrees of sociopathic behavior and find common bond in the murder of a friend. We are told about that murder, victim and perpetrators, in the first sentences of the prologue. The rest of the book is the telling of how it came to be, and of its aftermath on the lives of these "friends."

This seems to be one of those polarizing books--you love it or you hate it--based on the reviews it has received. I got it (Kindle edition) based on one glowing review I read. My judgment is middle of the road. There are aspects of the novel that I appreciated and that were well done, and others I really didn't like.

I thought Ms Tartt did a great job with passages describing the allure of classical Greek, the language and culture, to current day scholars. She tells us that a part of the fascination with another language, especially a "dead" one (and death is a major symbol in the book), is understanding the use of it in self-expression. That is, some languages are better than others at expressing certain concepts and so can lead the student to find new modes of thought. Classical Greek, for instance, is very action oriented (Ms Tartt tells us), making the speaker's points through chains of cause-and-effect. I don't how true that is, but it's an interesting aside in this book.

And then there are passes of just well-written prose. In terms of setting description and establishing ambiance, they would be textbook examples for writing students. For example:

The sun was low, burning gold through the trees, casting our shadows before us on the ground, long and distorted. We walked for a long time without saying anything. The air was musty with far-off bonfires, sharp with the edge of a twilight chill. There was no noise but the crunch of our shoes on the gravel path, the whistle of wind in the pines; I was sleepy and my head hurt and there was something not quite real about any of it, something like a dream. I felt that at any second I might start, my head on a pile of books at my desk, and find myself in a darkening room, alone.

As for her storytelling, Ms Tartt does a technically good job there. She keeps tension going throughout the long book, although at times, I felt it dragging. Like in the first part of the book where Henry (the driving, sociopathic force of the story and the best scholar of the group) tells the protagonist, Richard, about the first murder (actually, a near accident). His narration leads through a good quarter of the book in getting to his desire and plans for a second murder. This progression is described in that character's materialistically brutal, self-absorbed manner and is interesting in that regard, but it goes on for too long. There are other similarly long passages that required some effort to get through. This book could probably have been half the length with no loss to story.

The biggest drawback for me, however, was the lack of sympathetic characters. I mean, none. Even the protagonist (and this story is told in first person). They are all selfish and most are drunk or stoned all the time. They are selfish users, or gutless followers. Some of it is interesting, like the building plans to murder Bunny that become, to the student scholars, as little more than academic considerations up until their plan's execution. And there's a dynamic there of the group following Henry (the brilliant psychopath) in plotting this crime, mostly because Bunny was just obnoxious and he pissed-off everybody (so obviously, he didn't deserve to live).

After the second murder, the group goes from relief that it's over, to wild concern it will be discovered. As with sociopaths, their emotions stem not from guilt or remorse, but from fear of consequences (prison). So I never felt much pity for any of them. The protag offers some sage comments on the story (his "secret history") and indicates his life was basically ruined by it all. There is even a sense of "reform" on his part towards the end where he is seen drinking iced tea rather than booze. I saw that as far more development than in any of the other characters, but it was not, to me, enough to redeem him.

Now it may be that many people see this story as a "realistic" depiction of life and the way people are, and that is the story's attraction for them. If that's the case for you, then you may really like this book, especially with the author's considerable writing skills. But I like my stories with at least a little bit of hope and inspiration thrown in. For that reason, I can't recommend this book beyond an example of well written prose.

All that said, however, I did like the way Ms Tartt ended her story. It is done with an "after death" scene in the gray area of "is this real or illusion?".  If the whole book had been like that, I would have liked it better.