Friday, April 27, 2018

Review: The Secret History

The Secret History
From The Secret History, by Donna Tartt:
Open quote 

We hadn’t intended to hide the body where it couldn’t be found. In fact, we hadn’t hidden it at all but had simply left it where it fell in hopes that some luckless passer-by would stumble over it before anyone even noticed he was missing. This was a tale that told itself simply and well: the loose rocks, the body at the bottom of the ravine with a clean break in the neck, and the muddy skidmarks of dug-in heels pointing the way down; a hiking accident, no more, no less."

I chose to read this 1992 novel because I so enjoyed Donna Tartt's 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Goldfinch." The earlier debut novel reveals Tartt learning her craft. It's not as good, but it's still a good read.

Grade: B+

That excerpt above sounds like a huge spoiler, but it really isn't. Despite the talk of hiding the body, this novel isn't a whodunnit. The crime happens in the prologue. We know what happened. We know who the victim is. We know who the killers are. The novel then catches us up on how we got to that point, but spends most of its pages showing the protagonists' descent into ruin because of the crime.
I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone’s life when character is fixed forever; for me, it was that first fall term I spent at Hampden.
Source: The Secret History.
In a way, this is a coming-of-age tale. The narrator is a college student seeking to escape his Californian working-class family by enrolling in a private college in rural Vermont. He falls in with a charismatic classics professor and the professor's four other students, a tight clique that leads to disaster.

The plot is contrived. The students are bright academics who speak ancient Greek among themselves like some kind of secret code, but who also are so heavily into alcohol and drugs that it's a wonder they ever make it to class at all. The murder at the heart of the novel seems foreordained, like Tartt wants to get it out of the way quickly so she can focus on the aftermath. But what an aftermath.
I spent all my time in the library, reading the Jacobean dramatists. Webster and Middleton, Tourneur and Ford. It was an obscure specialization, but the candlelit and treacherous universe in which they moved—of sin unpunished, of innocence destroyed—was one I found appealing.
Source: The Secret History.
Sin unpunished. Innocence destroyed. Just as Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" is a psychological study, not a murder mystery, so too is Tartt's "The Secret History." (A random quote from "Crime and Punishment" is even inserted in Tartt's novel.) The happy band of incoming students slowly disintegrates, as the ramifications of what they did play out. This is not a crime story as much as it is a story of how problems that seem easy to deal with pragmatically at first can lead to an ever-more tangled mess that one can never escape.

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