The Secret History by Donna Tartt Review

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“What are the dead, anyway, but waves and energy? Light shining from a dead star?”

The story: At its very, very bare minimum this story is a whodunit murder mystery told in reverse: we are told of the crime, the victim, and the murders on the very first page; a group of students in a Greek class who have murdered one of their number. What follows is a long, unspooling tragedy of beauty and tension and horror that asks two critical questions: why was this done, and now what are the murderers to do?

The review: The first thing you have to know about me is that I am, above all, a lover of language. And not just language on its own, but language used deliberately , think the careful spareness of poetry, capturing as much emotion as possible in only so many words. At over 200,000 words this book is definitely longer than a poem, but the deliberate nature of the language holds true. No writer I have ever encountered can match Donna Tartt in her ability to write lyrical, dreamy prose that somehow manages to be crisp and fresh and encapsulate exactly the necessary atmosphere and feeling of the scene. It seems like an oxymoron. Beautiful prose used to deliberate effect? But some how, remarkably, it works–language does not have to be flowery to be lovely. Think of the prologue: “…while for years I might have imagined myself to be somewhere else, in reality I have been there all the time: up at the top by the muddy wheel-ruts in the new grass, where they sky is dark over the shivering apple blossoms…” . I think, perhaps, it is her economical and exacting use of adjectives and adverbs that does it. I studied Latin for years, and am obsessed with the parallels of translated classical literature and Tartt’s own writing style–the starkness, the spareness, the harsh beauty. These similarities are, of course, made even better by the thematic content of the novel itself.

But I digress. What else to say? I could tell you that the first time I read this book I was at beach with my family, and I walked with it everywhere–through shops, down streets, onto the beach–trailing listlessly after my family, absolutely unable to put this book down. Every time I finish it I feel as drained and exhausted as if I’d just run a marathon. The perfection of the final scene, the final lines, sends me reeling. I am continuity amazed by how Tartt manages to evoke sympathy for characters who are really and truly awful–as much as you hate Bunny, or Charles, or Henry, in one moment you can’t help but feel sorry for them in another. Part of this is the magic of an unreliable narrator written perfectly–Richard tells us from the first page that he suffers from a longing for the picturesque at all costs. And thus even the most horrid aspects of his friends become sympathetic in certain lights. This is echoed in the repeating mantra of the novel – “Beauty is terror”.

This novel won’t be for everyone. It is long and meandering, and full of scenes of characters sleeping or walking at night or reading together in the library. It takes time to understand that each small scene serves a greater purpose, but I can absolutely understand flagging and getting bored along the way. Even so, I have come to understand why this book holds the moniker of a “modern classic”

Published by Emma Wolfe

My name is Emma, and I am a Clinical Psychology PhD hopeful doing research in Boston. In my spare time, I am also a book reviewer and blogger. I specialize in science fiction and fantasy, but enjoy genre-bending literature of all kinds. I am also an amateur creative writer; my work has been published in national undergraduate literary magazines such as The Albion Review and the Allegheny Review.

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