“In short, I felt my existence was tainted, in some subtle but essential way…”
When I think of popular culture and how the various mediums rank in terms of how much I enjoy them, I always see books as a distant third behind films and music. In reality however, the only art form that is capable of filling my thoughts until it becomes all encompassing is the written word. A good book can make you lose yourself completely, wrapped and smitten in a velvet blanket, cascading down a labyrinthine rabbit hole. Not every book of course, but a select few. The Secret History enveloped me so totally that on one booze filled night I was convinced that I had somehow entered the story. Although that probably says more about my slender grasp on reality than anything else…
Richard Papen is a California boy who longs for a different life. His sense of disorientation and increasing hunger for wanderlust not only recalls other disillusioned, young men of literature, such as Holden Caulfield, Christopher McCandless and Nick Carraway, it also grants an otherwise otherworldly novel a feeling of familiarity. Through a series of fateful coincidences, Papen finds himself studying the classics at an elite school in Vermont alongside five other academics under the tutelage of the God like professor Julian Morrow.
The moment of genius that defines The Secret History is the reveal at the start of the novel that Richard and his friends killed Bunny Corcoran, one of their own. The rest of the novel is an exploration as to why Richard and his peers killed Bunny. Donna Tartt’s debut novel is unique in many ways as I found the characters to be neither likeable or relatable, but they are still utterly magnificent and completely compelling. Henry is the leader of the group and is one of the most intriguing literary characters I can ever recall reading about. You could fill several books just about Henry alone. Camilla and Charles are affable, excitable twins and poor old Bunny is the glue that ends up holding them all together. Rounding up the group is Francis, who is perhaps the only one that struggles to find his own voice amidst so many memorable characters but he does become more vital to the story as the novel goes on.
The Secret History is not just about the characters or the exquisite prose or the impressive scholarly reach of the various references to the classics, it is also about building a world that feels lived in and real, not just for the characters of course, but also for the reader. By the end of The Secret History I felt like I, myself, had been a minor player in the murder of Bunny Corcoran. Hovering in the background at a party perhaps or sharing the dining hall with Henry and Richard. It has been a long time since I have been this engrossed in a book. An instant classic.