Alright, maybe not a total banger – more like a satisfyingly slow burn – but I wanted to finish my Cannonball Read with something I’ve wanted to read for a while and it ended up being this. I was planning on reading it someday, so when I came across a copy in at a thrift store (cost me about three bucks in conjunction with The Little Friend) I figured fate was trying to tell me something.
I was working as a lowly book shop employee when The Little Friend came out. It had only been published in hardback and at about thirty bucks, it wasn’t cheap. It drew in a crowd of self-important semi-intellectuals who’d read The Secret History thought it was profound and important, and that alone turned eighteen year old me off of Tartt’s books for a while. Years later – still snobbish, but hopefully less judgemental – I kept hearing good things about The Secret History, so I figured that, with middle age slowly creeping up, maybe it was time I joined the semi-intellectual masses.I’m glad that I did.
For those who don’t know the story: Richard, a nineteen year old college student from California, finds a place to study at a secluded New England college. For some reason he decides that classical Greek is his thing, and under the tutelage of mysterious Julian he and his select club of fellow students find a new – decidedly Hellenistic – way of life that soon devolves into literal bloodshed.
There’s six of them: Richard himself, twins Charles and Camilla (I have no idea if there’s symbolism behind the names but I spent most of the novel thinking about it), Francis (the token gay guy, because Greece I suppose), enigmatic Henry (the leader of the pack) and Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran. We know Bunny will die because we find out in the first few pages of the novel, though how and why is left open for a long time. All we know is that his friends had something to do with it.
There’s something deeply ethereal about the novel. The members of the enigmatic group that Richard hangs out with, but is never really part of, all seem to blur together. It seems like a deliberate choice on the author’s part: they form a unit, an entity, a united front against the modern world. It’s no accident that they study the classics, dead Gods and a dead language, something with little practical use. They keep to themselves, far from the rest of the college, and if they do mingle they’ll often look down on the people they meet. Richard, not quite an outsider but not an insider either, joins their group late, when the first tragedy has already struck and though they are kind and welcoming, he never truly becomes part of their group.
There’s also something otherworldly about the fact that aside from a few details, the novel could have taken place anywhere between the fifties and the early nineties, when the book was published. If not for a tangential character casually suggesting they watch MTV it would have been anyone’s guess. It’s an unsetting experience, but it befits the novel.
Not every part works for me. The novel is overly wordy in places, and though Tartt’s prose is brilliant it gets carried away with itself sometimes. My main and only problem with it, really, is the character of Bunny, where the author falls into the trap of show-don’t-tell; we’re constantly told how much fun Bunny is to be around but I found him to be grating and exhausting.
The Secret History is a big book, yet it took me little over a week to read in a week where I didn’t have a lot of time to read, so that is a testament to just how readable it is. Its pace is quite slow so it may not be for everyone; the thriller groups on Facebook that I’m part of constantly refer to it as The Secret ZzzzZzz. If you ask me, they’re missing out.