The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I have always been a fan of books that leave me feeling slighting uncomfortable. This may sound strange, but I think that a book that has left you uncomfortable has done so by challenging what you believe. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is such a book. After reading Fifty Shades of Grey I really wanted something challenging. I’m always on the look-out for new book selections when I stumbled upon a list called “101 Books We’d Want on a Deserted Island” from the website www.dailycandy.com. While I saved this link, it appears to no longer work or else I’d share it here. From this list, fortunately, I created my own list of books that sounded interesting. Included in my list was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
I read a few reviews on it and from what I could gather it reminded me of one book I’d read previously and a movie. The movie that came to mind was Dead Poet’s Society. The description of Secret History on the Barnes and Noble website states “Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries.” I couldn’t help but immediately think “O Captain, my Captain. Unfortunately, there wasn’t as much “o captaining” as I expected, but that didn’t make the novel any worse for me. The book that came to mind was one I’d read a few years back called Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Pessl’s novel, while set in high school, also revolves around a small group of students who follow the words of their film teacher (unfortunately I cannot review this book as it’s been far too long since I’ve read it. With that being said, you will not regret picking up a copy and having been reminded of this novel, I’m hoping to re-read it again sometime soon).
But anyway, I’ve become distracted. The point of my digression is that I was intrigued because I was reminded of other stories I’ve enjoyed. My intrigue only grew when I read the second half of the description that read “But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and forever, and they discover how hard it can be to truly live and how easy it is to kill.” The Secret History is in fact a murder mystery; however a very interesting one at that because it is told in reverse. The very first chapter of the book starts with the murder of Bunny Corcoran committed by his very own friends. The story is narrated by Richard Papen, originally the outsider in the small group of students studying the Greek classics but who slowly becomes an insider. He tells this story six years after it has happened.
The novel itself plays out quite like the Greek tragedies that the students are studying. Papen himself admits his own fatal flaw in the book when he says “Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.” Reading this, I couldn’t help but sympathize with Papen. I think a lot of people would find that at times they are stuck in the idea of and longing for something that is too good to be true. It is this fatal flaw, and those of the other main characters, that leads to the ultimate catastrophe at the end.
For me, it is the melancholic tone that is the best and most haunting aspect of this book. By the time Bunny is murdered, you’re so completely engrossed in the world of his friends that believe their only option is to kill one of their own that it’s not even shocking. It’s weird because I knew from the very beginning that Bunny was going to die and yet it was approached and conceived by people who didn’t seem to think anything of it. In fact, I almost never expected it to happen. And then it did. And I still wasn’t shocked. Tartt so perfectly describes the transition from students studying the classics to students plotting murder that it’s believable, and terrifying. Terrifying because the students don’t seem like evil people. As the reader you’re forced to question what’s right versus wrong; good versus evil and it’s never a straight line.
Life is a series of choices, and the narrator acknowledges this when he learns what human beings, more specifically human beings he considers his friends, are capable of. He stops at this moment in his narration and says “It’s funny, but thinking back on it now, I realize that this particular point in time, as I stood there blinking in the deserted hall, was the one point at which I might have chosen to do something very much different from what I actually did. But of course I didn’t see this crucial moment for what it actually was; I suppose we never do. Instead, I only yawned, and shook myself from the momentary daze that had come upon me, and went on my way down the stairs.” It’s an uncomfortable feeling reading this and hoping that if you were to look back at the choices you’ve made in life (hopefully none quite so drastic), that they ended up being the right ones.
It’s funny how things connect sometimes but as it happened, the night before I started writing this blog post, I was digging through old documents on my computer when I found one full of quotes from Special Topics in Calamity Physics (I’m telling you, go buy both these books and read them; but not in a row. I don’t think my brain could have handled that). One of the quotes from this book was “The moments on which life hinges, I think growing up you always imagine your life—your success—depends on your family and how much money they have, where you go to college, what sort of job you can pin down, starting salary. But it doesn’t, you know. You wouldn’t believe this, but life hinges on a couple of seconds you never see coming. And what you decide in those few seconds determines everything from then on. Some people pull the trigger and it all explodes in front of them. Other people run away. And you have no idea what you’ll do until you’re there. When your moment comes, don’t be afraid. Do what you need to do.”
Makes you think, doesn’t it?