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The Secret History by Donna Tartt, A Review

Good afternoon all, 

I have a fantastic review for you today, The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I adore this book, and re-reading it in March definitely made me appreciate the story, prose, and author even more. The first part to this review is spoiler free. Further down in the section titled ‘A closer look,’ contains spoilers and a more in-depth character discussion. Therefore, if you haven’t read it yet and want a non-spoiler review, do not read beyond the heading ‘A closer look’.

Non-Spoiler review:

“The mere sight of her sparked an almost infinite range of fantasy, from Greek to Gothic, from vulgar to divine” ~ Donna Tartt, The Secret History

Three things that will probably happen when you read this book:

1) After no previous desire, you’ll immediately want to start learning ancient Greek

2) You’ll wish you could have spent warm summers days in the country

3) You’ll read the last 300 pages in one sitting because it’s too good to put down

“Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it”

It’s always hard reviewing a favourite book, there’s so many elements you want to say and discuss, but I’ll do my best without spoiling the plot. This story follows Richard and his time at college studying under the eccentric and mysterious Julian. But that’s just the premise. The actual story it’s the build up and aftermath of a murder, something you discover early on in the book: in the prologue.

This hauntingly beautiful and mystical tale is a masterpiece. Tartt manages to sweep you up in the characters lives and makes your heart break over her stunning prose. The language and text is phenomenal, and after you’re left with a different perception of people, history, and the world… I just want to quote everything.

 

The characters are brilliantly thought out and well developed. Not all of them are necessarily likeable, but they’re fascinating and you can’t help but feel connections between them.

“I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”

The ending is shocking: Tartt manages to combine suspense and tension with action and torment.

The Secret History is officially in my top 10 fave books of all time after my re-read. I’ll definitely need to make a new favourites list soon! I will be needing another copy though, as you can see, this one is officially battered. I enjoyed reading this with @generallygothic  and @booksinthebelfryover on #bookstagram

A Closer Look

Please don’t read any further if you wish to avoid spoilers.

This section of my review is dedicated to taking  a closer look at my thoughts and opinions on this book. I have discussed these with @generallygothic and @booksinthebelfry over on bookstagram and it has been a delight to explore our perceptions. 

Lets start with the characters:

Richard: The protagonist of the novel. Richard narrates the novel from a first-person past perspective. He is not only remembering the events from his time at college, but reflects his friends’ actions in addition to his own. He is not the ‘hero’ of this story,  nor is he the villain. He lies somewhere in between: the personification of humanity. He makes choices he later regrets, yet attempts to understand. His moral conscious is considerably hindered throughout depending on the company he has. Richard is also not portrayed in a brilliant light; he is by no means perfect, but at the same time ends the novel in a considerably unscathed presence. I liked the character of Richard, and since I had no reason to doubt his testimony, was forced to trust him from the beginning. Tartt’s narration through Richard uses his character to practice a sort of ventriloquism. Tartt speaks through Richard that personifies the entire narrative. His perception is a personality in itself and makes the reader reflect on their own morality whilst reading. Additionally, I found myself infuriated at Richard’s portrayal of female characters, specifically, Camilla. I found that, although interesting, she was an incredibly dis-likeable character. But upon reflection, I realised that perhaps it was Richard’s perception of her that made her unlikable. But more on her later. It surprised me that Tartt managed to effectively perfect the male narrative, and also that of the male gaze, with just a single narrator. I found that the second time around, I gave more sympathy to the Camilla’s character as she had no voice of her own and instead relied on Richard to convey her as a likeable and passionate character, something of which Richard did not succeed in. 

“Forgive me, for all the things I did but mostly for the ones that I did not.”

Bunny: Bunny is the one with the least air-time yet becomes the central character in an overwhelming plot to create and destroy. Bunny exists in the novel both as a student and then as a memory, but perhaps it is the latter we care about more? Both Henry (through Richard) makes a convincing argument in justifying Bunny’s death. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened should Bunny have gone directly to Julian, or had he been involved in the ritual himself. I believe Bunny’s desire to inform the police of the other students’ crime stemmed not from a moral calling, but by his own exclusion. The ritual involved Henry, Francis, Camilla, and Charles (and by extension, Julian) therefore, only Richard and Bunny were excluded. Richard survives by adapting to Henry’s confession and siding with his story, yet Bunny finds out by translating Henry’s diary. Could the passive voice of information been key to Bunny’s demise? Richard’s portrayal of Bunny is not favourable, yet at the same time, creates an enormous amount of sympathy. He is seen as a trickster, a bully at times, and always wants the best perception, however, he frequently requires money from his friends as although his family is rich, he is not. This perhaps acknowledges how he wants to be perceived, yet Richard speaks for him in the novel, meaning we only get his point of view. 

Henry:  death seems to follow this character around, well actually, he seems to be the source. He is a fascinating character and one the reader can’t help but sympathise with even though he is probably the least remorseful character of them all. He, again, is personified though Richard, which makes the reader follow Richard’s own complicated relationship with Henry. We understand Henry’s actions, perhaps even justify them, yet it is not until Henry’s death that we are left pondering whether we really trusted him at all. Was he a calm and collected person , or was that a false pretence? Did he foreshadow his own death, or believe it was the only way out in a snap decision? Had Henry survived, I am unsure whether we would have achieved a different outcome, and yet, this means his death is meaningless? Or, because of this fact, his death has the most meaning? Even over the farmer’s or Bunny’s death. We will never know his reasoning, we can only guess. However, either way, his demise is a spectral reminder that Richard’s narrative may not be conclusive, or even trustworthy. After all, we never got to see the real Henry, only the one Richard wanted to believe out of manipulation, or by sheer infatuation of Henry’s character. 

“It is is better to know one book intimately than a hundred superficially.”

Camilla: I disliked Camilla’s character, yet, she is only personified through Richard. Her dialogue is not only limited, but interrupted. We never know who the ‘real Camilla’ is as it is only Richard’s portrayal that we see. As there are no other narrators or POV’s, the reader can only trust his perspective. Richard exclaims that he loves her, and throughout the novel wishes to take their relationship to the next level. But it is not love, it is infatuation. He takes what little personification of Camilla there is in the novel and dictates how the reader sees her; an unlikable one-dimensional character with little or no development.

Charles: Camilla’s twin. Charles is an odd character, and although his ending seems the most turbulent and disorganised, I believe he was the only one that was genuinely happy. He takes the brunt of the police investigation and develops dangerous habits whilst doing so. Part of me believes, if not for Charles, Henry would have survived. But then again, Charles’ actions although not justifiable, were understandable. Charles’ character gives the reader perspective and an overwhelming level of sympathy. Without Charles, there would be no action to cause a reaction, yet instead of the catalyst, Charles act’s at the penultimate climax. 

Francis: Francis never really had time to develop. Sometime he acts as the conscience, an upper-class ‘Jiminy cricket’ yet flounders when explaining his stance. His ending is rather sad, but, yet again, sympathetic and understandable. Francis’ character has taken a pot of its own, a lead towards his end. We feel sympathy for a murderer (on both counts) yet we cannot help but replicate Richard’s bewilderment when Francis is forced into marriage of which he wholeheartedly agrees to. 

“One likes to think there’s something in it, that old platitude amor vincit omnia. But if I’ve learned one thing in my short sad life, it is that that particular platitude is a lie. Love doesn’t conquer everything. And whoever thinks it does is a fool.”

The plot takes on it’s own character as there are tremendous developments acted out through Richard and his friends. The silent character, the story, follows a simple plot: the lead up and aftermath of a murder, yet the actual story becomes bigger than itself, almost compelling the reader to become horrified yet understand the elements of the novel. 

I could write about The Secret History for years, it’s a phenomenal story with stunning prose that you can’t help but fall in love with. Comment below or on my Instagram page to discuss more about this book! I want to know what you think. Undoubtedly, this is one of those books that stays with you and even after a second read, I still have questions.  I have thoroughly enjoyed chatting about this book to @booksinthebelfry and @generallygothic  and hope our group chat continues! Here’s to The Secret History club!

Head over to my Instagram or twitter (both @gothicbookworm) to talk more and see exclusive content. 

You can also visit @generallygothic’s blog and discussion on The Secret History by CLICKING HERE

You can also visit @booksinthebelfry’s wonderful blog by CLICKING HERE 

My only tip would be to, once finished, read the prologue again; it creates an overwhelming sense of dread and darkness…

Stay spooky, 

Lauren

The Gothicbookworm

Images: Lauren, The Gothic Bookworm

All quotes: Donna Tartt, The Secret History

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