A book review? On my book review blog? It’s more likely than you think.
This review contains spoilers, so be warned.
I realise I’m quite late to the party with this one (the book came out in 1992, but it’s recently done the rounds on all the book blogs in the past year or so), which honestly surprises me because this is totally up my alley; incredibly pretentious Classics students quoting literature at each other while wrapped up in a reverse murder-mystery? Yes please! I dove into this book expecting a sort of Riot-Club-meets-Dead-Poets-Society, which honestly sounds like the best thing ever and if it doesn’t exist it should.
Bunny Corcoran is dead, and the narrator Richard had a part in killing him. That’s not a spoiler – the book opens with this information. I’m not sure how I feel about being told this straight away; I don’t object to this style of backwards storytelling, but I do wonder what it might have been like if the murder had come as a surprise. We go into this novel knowing that Richard and the rest of the group are capable of murder, so we view all of their actions through this lens. That’s possibly part of the point, but I think it would be interesting to know what I would make of the characters based purely on their first impressions rather than pre-gained knowledge. That said, I did enjoy the premise of a ‘why-dunnit’ in a sort of reverse murder mystery.
The book is split into two halves based around the killing. The first half is set pre-murder and introduces us to Julian, the enigmatic Classics teacher, who has handpicked an elite group of students The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie style. The students are hugely secretive and isolated from the rest of the school and Richard attempts to integrate himself into this group. The tight-knit group have complex relationship dynamics that are gradually teased out in a fascinating way. The narrative effectively and gradually builds the tension which eventually results in the killing of Bunny.
The second part explores what happens after the murder, both plot-wise – the police investigation and risk of discovery – and even more interestingly how the characters cope – or don’t cope – with what they did. This half was the more fascinating for me. I enjoyed seeing how Tartt explored the psyches of the members of the group, pulling apart the enigma surrounding the members of the group that she built during the first part of the book.
That’s what I enjoyed most about The Secret History. The characters are initially presented as aloof, mature and each one is more pretentious than the last (don’t even get me started on Henry). They smoke and drink whiskey and have discussions on the nature of beauty. All of them except Richard come from rich privileged families and the first half sees Richard lying desperately and trying to pretend to be one of them. But Tartt completely tears this facade apart in the second half. These are just children pretending to be adults but they’re all screwed up in some way and it’s tragic. Even before Bunny’s death their relationships are a mess, they’re anxious and needy, and they’re just self aware enough to see that it’s all falling apart but not aware enough to realise that they’re their own worst enemies. Tartt has created a Greek tragedy in a modern setting with teenagers and I love it. (This idea is explored in a much better way than I could ever explain it in this article.)
If I had one complaint about this book, it’s the character of Julian. Julian is a mystery, fiercely intelligent and the inspiration for the group’s desire for the divine and the hedonistic. In everything I saw before reading from reviews to the book’s own blurb he’s presented as the driving force behind everything. So I was a little surprised to read the book and realise that he doesn’t actually do anything. Sure, he introduces them to the concepts of the Bachannal, but Henry’s the one that leads them. He has no part in the murder or its subsequent cover up, and he disappears for large portions of the story. He mainly seems to be there as a reason for the group to be together and as isolated as they are and to provide exposition on the Classical concepts to the reader. It didn’t detract too much from the story, but it seemed a little odd that he was built up so much only for nothing to be done with that.
That said, I adored this book. It definitely has a place on my favourites shelf – I’m a sucker for dark academia – and I’m planning on picking up some more of Tartt’s writing very soon. I cannot recommend this book enough, especially if you have an interest in Classics.