Unlike the changing of the seasons from summer to autumn, and the slow shift of the leaves to yellow and brown, my obsession with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History stays evergreen. For the main protagonist, Richard, an outcast and classicist at Hampden College, obsession is his fatal flaw, reflecting the main theme of the novel.
Tartt’s novel centres around six classicists as they explore the dark depths of classical rites and rituals in the modern world, the consequences of suffocating proximity in an isolated Vermont college, and identity in the elite circle. As a Classics student here at St Andrews, the Graeco-roman references sprinkled throughout the novel enrich the reading experience for me greatly. But don’t worry, even if you have no knowledge of the ancient world, this book is still sure to thrill you.
After re-reading The Secret History seven times, I see a Richard Papen in myself and in all of us. For my fellow aesthetes, Oscar Wilde aficionados, outcasts and rat pack wannabes, much of his discontent can be found deep in the collective minds of students still: as “my dissatisfaction was bohemian, vaguely Marxist in origin”. Entranced by both the haunting mountains of Vermont and the disarming creatures of the exclusive Classics class, I believe many will find his point of view relatable. The same can be said for setting. I can easily picture the events of the book taking place in select spots around our own three streets! That’s why this is a perfect autumn book, the time of year when Richard makes his first move from barren California to the lush green hills of Vermont.
Tartt’s delicious use of neo-romantic style in her writing makes the reading of every word a pleasure, in particular her descriptions of the campus of Hampden College; “Radiant meadows, mountains vaporous in the trembling distance…bonfires and fog in the valleys: cellos, dark windowpanes, snow”. Reminds you of autumn, doesn’t it?
However, just as you get comfortably settled into that romantic, gothic trance of aesthetic ennui, the temperature drops, and as events darken you are thrust out into the sharp, cold clarity like a new born child. Some critics say that the climax and aftermath are too archetypal, a view which while I understand, I do not believe. Calling the novel out as simply a murder mystery is too reductionist for The Secret History, it is rather a ‘whodunnit’, where the murder is laid out for you in the prologue. Nevertheless, Tartt does not give the game away from the start, the rest of the novel covers the reasons leading up to the murder and the resulting mental and physical collapse of the classics students. It would be a cliché to say that this book kept me itching to turn every page, but as all the best clichés are born out of reality, so it is true.
Overall, I can say that, no, I will never overcome this obsession with Tartt’s The Secret History and as she gratifyingly states; “It is better to know one book intimately than a hundred superficially”. If you find yourself in need of a little escapism after a long day of work, I humbly present this gem of a novel to slake your literary thirst.