In the first paragraph of the novel, its narrator singles out what he believes to be his ‘fatal flaw’: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs. If you can relate to this in any way, at least when it comes to fiction, and can enjoy appalling yet fascinating characters who are not likeable or relatable, The Secret History is a treat, a rather unconventional and mesmerising blend of intellectual ideas and a murder mystery.
The murder mystery is not so much of a mystery: right in the prologue, you learn that the narrator, Richard, and four of his friends kill another friend. The tension in the book then is not about who, but why the five college students came to commit this terrible act, and what happens to them and the wider community in the aftermath.
It goes all the way back to when Richard, an unhappy Californian native with blue-collar parents, gets a scholarship and a chance to attend the exclusive and prestigious Hampden College in New England. There, he falls in with a small, close-knit group of ancient Greek students and Julian, their charismatic teacher. These kids are privileged, aloof, self-absorbed, snobby, eccentric, and utterly alluring to Richard, partly because they seem to be so out of step with the rest of the students and the modern world in general. Their dedication to the ancient Greece strikes a chord with Richard, who, despite being far from a sexless creature, seems to be obsessed more with the ideals of beauty. In fact, this otherworldly, unmodern quality of the characters gives The Secret History a timeless feel, where this could have easily been a 19th century novel if not for the mentions of phones, hippies and The Grateful Dead (and quite a bit of drugs).
Of course, Richard’s new friends hide a gruesome secret, foreshadowed in one of my favourite parts of the book where Julian talks eloquently about the ancient Greeks and their fascination with the loss of self, religious ecstasy, and the dark, irrational part of human nature. It’s to Tartt’s credit that the details of the secret, which could have come off as ridiculous and melodramatic, seem totally plausible, even when they’re tinged with a touch of supernatural.
Perhaps predictably, after pages of building up suspense and apprehension, the book loses some of its power once the central murder happens and one of its most vivid characters exits the stage. Which is not to say that the aftermath, with its further revelations about the characters, is not compelling, and the book also gets rather satirical in its depiction of the mass hysteria that sweeps the campus post-murder.
The novel has some great descriptive passages and fantastically drawn characters, particularly Henry, the unofficial leader of the group who is highly intelligent, erudite, cold, manipulative and whose motivations you’re never completely sure about. Some other characters fare less well, especially Camilla, the sole female member of the gang, who mostly floats in and out like an ethereal ghost and whose main purpose seems to be a subject of infatuation. Overall though, this is a haunting, beautifully written, confidently constructed book that’s definitely a re-read material.