THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt (First published 1992)
Donna Tartt’s remarkable debut novel begins boldly with a chilling description of the murder of Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran.
We immediately how this young man dies and who kills him. What we don’t know is why he was murdered and what the consequences of this act will be, Book I takes us through the events leading to the crime while Book II deals with the fall out from the killing.
Despite Tartt’s dramatic prologue, I confess there were times initially when I found her claustrophobic narrative style hard going. However, she more than rewards perseverance and once the story kicks in at the beginning of Book II, I was well and truly hooked.
Bunny’s fate and the aftermath are related by a Californian, Richard Papen, a newbie at Hampden College, Vermont. He is an outsider both in terms of his origins and social status. At one point he even describes himself as a mere bystander. On top of this, readers have to depend on his account even though it becomes clear that he is a well-practiced liar if and when the need arises.
Richard finds himself intrigued and attracted to a coterie of five students of Greek. These have been hand-picked by a charismatic, yet aloof, classics professor Julian Morrow.
As the tale unfolds, we never get the sense that we are getting all the facts and are frequently left in the dark about the motives of the characters. None of the elitist group are particularly warm or even particularly likeable. They each appear emotionally detached to the point of coldness; none more so than the aptly named Henry Winter. He is a wealthy scholar who, much like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime And Punishment, seems to want to prove himself capable of acting beyond conventional notions of good and evil.
Tartt describes herself as a miniaturist and her gift is in the way she manages to create a world in microcosm. Her fictional setting is modern in tone yet also strangely divorced from contemporary events.
The Secret History remains powerful because, although it is narrow in scope, its themes are universal. The meticulously crafted plot is rooted in a forensic examination of the foibles of human behaviour.
More compelling still, it stands as a brilliantly precocious study of mankind’s unlimited capacity for self-deception and cruelty.