The Secret History

The Secret HistoryThe Secret History by Donna Tartt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like if Harry Potter went to Slytherin. Tartt is undeniably a better writer than Rowling – every couple of pages of The Secret History has a dazzling bit of description. But Rowling does a better job of interweaving the mysteries in her plots, where episodes are returned to and reinterpreted in the light of new revelations. Tartt's approach is more linear – new information is introduced about characters and events to explain the latest twist, which feels clumsier. It's forgivable though, expecially as the narration is in first person and the character of Richard may not be as skilled a storyteller as he, or we, would like.

The book is long and as a result occasionally plodding. The sheer extent of it makes deducing its themes difficult – it's about what it's about. The lasting impression it left me with was that the youthful dyonisian urge towards dissolution is universal – and the disturbing rituals the coterie engage in are just a more sinister manifestation of the decadent student experience of parties, drugs and rock music the main characters are so dismissive of. There's just a seductive upper-class veneer applied to their activites– which Richard, an interloper ashamed of his working-class background, cannot but be enchanted by. Wealth and beauty are dazzling but ultimately disguise what is (to put it politely) extremly reprehensible behaviour.

Bunny's character is dwelt on so long partly to set up a contrast with our narrator and protagonist. Bunny cannot afford the trappings of his class, and sponges off the wealth of his friends. Richard almost dies rather than admit his poverty and ask for help. But despite his flaws, Bunny has the capacity to see through the allure of his sophisticated friends, and was on the cusp of exposing their crimes, whereas Richard does everything he can to protect them. The act of writing his secret history may be a form of atonement, a realisation on the part of Richard that Bunny had the right idea in the end, and Richard has to finally burn his bridges with the university friends he loved so much.

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