The Secret History

The Secret History - Donna Tartt 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.

The Secret History is an odd sort of book. It feels like a weird mishmash of ideas, part-Brideshead Revisited, part-Talented Mister Ripley, part-The Great Gatsby and part-infused with the cynicism inherent in a lot of modern literary fiction (I felt overtones of the same atmosphere in Atonement and The Magicians too, though I liked those books much, much less.) It is, in essence, a murder mystery that begins with the murder and ends with mystery, perhaps more than I would like.

I'm not really sure what it was that ultimately worked for me - I think it was the cohesive nature of the plot that held together. The overarching mystery about why each of the characters acts in their own particular and specific way was truly compelling. It's also very easy to see how Richard ends up embroiled in the world of these rich kids, wanting to believe that there is something special about him, about all of them, that he is chosen. That the book opens with a death makes it pretty clear that things aren't really going to end well.

Tartt's prose is good, in some places great. And she knows how to withhold the right amount of information, how to tease you through the plot and make you feel like you're always on the point of revelation - but never actually giving it all away, even at the end. This is one of her greatest strengths - but at the end, I didn't feel like it was enough. The characterisation is great in places - Richard, for example, is fully believable as someone from an obscure background who wants to move beyond that - but weak in others - Henry is a bit of a sociopath and I don't really get much else from him. I think that is partially the point, but I don't really feel like she made it work all that well. I didn't buy Camilla's attraction to him either, especially after the length of time that had passed at the end - I could maybe even accept it in the context of the period while they were at college but not after the fact.

Like I said though - compelling! I enjoyed being suckered into the college-y world and the gradual disintegration of everything that Richard has believed about himself and the others. I was also kind of glad that nothing terrible happened to Richard because I did just feel awfully sorry for him most of the time even though he was a complete ass. I give The Secret History eight out of ten.