I’m re-reading some of the books I loved in the 90s to see what I make of them now.
What I remember
I remember very little detail of this book. I recall it was about a clique of college students formed around a charismatic classics teacher. I know that the book features a Bacchanalian rite where the least popular member of the group is killed. I remember enjoying this book but not much more than that, so it will be a good one to revisit.
What it was like
The Secret History is a long book. Tartt’s writing is good, but I prefer minimalist fiction. This story begins with what what Holden Caulfield referred to as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap,” telling us about the main character’s background. It all felt a little dreary – particularly when the prologue was heavy foreshadowing, promising the reader a murder if they were patient with the set-up.
The book immerses you in the life of narrator Richard, a Californian who has come to a small college in Vermont. He joins a tiny classics tutor group on a whim, under a charismatic teacher called Julian. He gets to know the five other students, who have all been raised in privilege. Tartt does a lot of good work in establishing this world, where the 80s college experience interfaces with the more timeless world of Julian’s tutor group.
Richard is an unreliable narrator. We see him casually tell lies about himself and, almost as casually, dismissing being caught in those lies. There is a darkness in Richard – at one point he refers to ‘crushing an easter chick’ as a child. However, Richard’s lies never really become part of the plot.
I remembered the novel doing much more with the classics than it did. I also remember it as containing much more about the bacchanalia, when this took up very little of the text. I’d have liked the book to be less restrained than it was.
The Secret History is a good book, but a long one. It’s well-written, but wasn’t really what I was in the mood for. I longed for the death that was promised in the prologue to take place so that things could get moving. By about two-hundred pages in, I was ready to push that character off a cliff myself.If you want to follow what I'm up to, sign up to my mailing list