Thursday, 9 April 2009

The Secret History - Donna Tartt

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a review as: “a critical appraisal.” The word ‘critical’ implying an inherent need to assess faults as well as strengths. This creates a problem for anyone seeking to review The Secret History because to my mind it is almost faultless. There can have been few more universally acclaimed novels written in the last fifty years.

Struggling to find his way at an exclusive New England college, Richard finds himself drawn towards a group of privileged students studying in a sequestered ancient Greek class under the tutelage of the eccentric Julian Marrow. They study everything – from the furies to Plato – and with a thirst for knowledge which Richard has never encountered before, intent on recreating the past in everything they do. But as they become increasingly immersed in the classical world of their imaginations they become obsessed with the idea that to be free one must lose themselves completely, as Euripides puts it to be “more like deer than human beings.” In search of this they begin to push the boundaries further and further and in doing so become embroiled in a complex web of deceit which threatens to destroy them all.

Set amidst the claustrophobic gothic setting of a New England college this is a psychological tale of friendship and murder. Donna Tartt has created one of those rare books; an intelligent and complex literary novel, beautifully written and wonderfully portrayed yet which remains eminently and delightfully readable. The characters are intimately and realistically drawn, so believable you feel as though you have known them for years. During the rare moments I was able to lift my head from the page and engage with the real world I found myself discussing their personality traits as though they were old friends, such is the ability of the author to draw the reader in and make them feel truly part of the action. There are few more intense or claustrophobic works and the effect of this is to surround the reader, at once both inviting and threatening and the only way out is to keep reading, until the events have run their course and you can finally recommence your everyday life.

The style of writing is thick and tactile, satisfying in an all encompassing way which few writers can achieve. And it is wonderfully beautiful. But as the characters observe, beauty is terror, and there’s plenty here of each. Take this fabulous passage:

“After class, I wandered downstairs in a dream, my head spinning, but acutely, achingly conscious that I was alive and young on a beautiful day; the sky a deep deep painful blue, wind scattering the red and yellow leaves in a whirlwind of confetti.

Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful we quiver before it.

That night I wrote in my journal: ‘Trees are schizophrenic now and beginning to lose control, enraged with the shock of their fiery new colours. Someone – was it van Gogh? – said that orange is the colour of insanity. Beauty is terror. We want to be devoured by it, to hide ourselves in that fire which refines us.’”

Such passionate, absorbent and sensuous prose, The Secret History is simply a joy to read. Donna Tartt has created a masterpiece. This is a modern classic drawn from antiquity that will take you on a journey of epic proportions.

Okay, I have found a criticism for this most exquisite of books: at six-hundred pages it is not nearly long enough. I wanted it to go on forever. Hinc illae lacrimae. Hence these tears.

10 out of 10

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