Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is one of my favourite books. I read it sat on a night bus somewhere in Australia, and never had I been so grateful for eight, nine hours of uninterrupted reading. So, why did it take me almost five years to pick up The Secret History? Partly, I think, due to the pressure. Would I love it as much? Partly because the prestige. It’s always daunting reading a much-loved literary novel. Would I get it? And partly because I know how quickly Tartt pulls you down those dark rabbit holes, darkness spreading through every innocuous sentence.
But I finally got round to reading it this month, and I feel robbed that I’ve missed out on 27 years of knowing this book. As it’s almost three decades old, only a year younger than me, and read by almost everyone else in our corner of the internet, I didn’t want to do a normal review.
Instead, here are three reasons you need to read (or reread) The Secret History. Let me know if you agree or disagree with these, or what your top reasons would be.
1. The murder
The first sentence of this book makes the writerly half of my soul weep.
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”
In one simple sentence, Tartt grabs you by the neck and doesn’t let go. She sets the scene (who doesn’t love a snowy mountain landscape); she gives a glimpse into the characters’ minds (surely you’d be worrying from the moment you killed the person – not weeks later); and she lays the story out on the table (I too assumed that this would be the book’s most dramatic moment).
Straight away we’re in the middle of the action, pulses are racing and imagination going wild. We’ve taken up residence in our narrator’s memories and we aren’t going anywhere for the next 628 pages.
I went to Will Storr’s masterclass on the psychology behind writing a few months ago, and he explained how the brain works when it comes to information. In short, it hates missing gaps. It hates not having the missing picture. Which is why crime and thriller novels and films are so popular: because they prey on this fundamental instinct: if there’s a mystery, your brain won’t stop seeking out the answer.
Tartt’s first line is textbook, on the surface. There’s been a murder! But we know who’s done it. We know how they did it. And we can infer that they got away with it. So, why are we day-ruiningly addicted? Because who just gives away that kind of information? And so easily?
Instantly we’re in narrator Richard’s mind, and we’re unpicking this wild ride. This is a book about a murder, an investigation and a cover-up. But could you call it a crime or detective novel? Not really. There’s so much more to the story than Bunny’s murder. It’s a psychological journey, watching the rise and demise of Henry and his group.
2. The beauty
There’s an obsession with beauty in The Secret History. It reminded me of books like The Beautiful and the Damned, The Great Gatsby and The Social Creature, in that beauty isn’t necessarily a good thing. It’s strived for and desired, but it’s not a pretty girl or a meadow of flowers.
“Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves?”
This terrible beauty threads itself through the entire novel. It’s the beauty of being raw and human; of not covering up with social niceties and expectations.
“The business had upset him, that I knew, but I also knew that there was something about the operatic sweep of the search which could not fail to appeal to him and that he was pleased, however obscurely, with the aesthetics of the thing.”
Beauty doesn’t just refer to the students’ search for their insanity and sanity though. The language in The Secret History is near poetic. Tartt writes in a plain manner – there’s no fluffiness to her style. But despite this, the language is rich and vivid, every word meticulously placed to keep us stuck behind Richard.
3. The belief
The Secret History would fall flat if you didn’t buy into Henry’s world. Without this belief, it’s just a group of posh college kids with a penchant for playing god. I couldn’t help but fall hook, line and sinker for this group. And it’s the way that Tartt pulls you into this game that’s so effective.
We have the unreliable narrator, Richard, who’s so desperate to fit in and become one of these Greek heroes that he lets Henry’s words and ideals soak into every pore of his being. And we can’t help but to follow. We see Richard’s initial hesitance, but like him, we nod and agree.
“Despite my efforts, I am never able to blend myself in entirely and remain in some respects quite distinct from my surroundings, in the same way that a green chameleon remains a distinct entity from the green leaf upon which it sits, no matter how perfectly it has approximated the subtleties of the particular shade.”
Tartt puts her reader into a trance, just like Henry woos Richard with his lifestyle, intelligence and plans.
There are about a million other reasons to read this book. It’ll stay with you for weeks, months, (probably) years after you finish it. It’s a work of art, and I’m gutted I wasted so much of my life not reading it.