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The Secret History (book review)

The Secret HistoryThe Secret History by Donna Tartt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A crime novel, but not a whodunit, because you know who did it right from the first page. But the crime is central to the lives of the main characters.

I read this book because it was recommended in The Modern Library as one of the 200 best novels of the latter half of the 20th century. I don’t rate it quite as highly as that, but nevertheless found it quite an interesting read.

It takes the form, almost, of a student diary. I kept a diary as a student, but not in as much detail. This one weighs in at over 600 pages covering one academic year; mine for any one year was not more than 200. So the book goes into great detail, including what they ate, what they drank, what they smoked and how they smoked it,

In some ways the detail enhances the book. A middle-class small-town Californian student, Richard Papen, goes to study at Hampden College in Vermont. The landscape is unfamiliar to him, so he describes it in detail. I found that useful; not having been to Vermont it helped me to picture the scene, and not to mix it up with universities that I am familiar with.

Having done some ancient Greek at his previous college, Papen decides that he wants to major in it, but is advised against this. The professor, Julian Morrow, is fussy about which students he takes, and indeed rejects Papen at first, though when he accidentally helps some of the other students on the course in the library, he is eventually accepted, and becomes part of an elite group of six students who hang out together. The others all seem to have rich parents, though one of them, Bunny Corcoran, does not receive much support from his parents, and behaves like the last of the great spongers. It is Bunny who is eventually murdered by his fellow students.

The setting is the late 1970s or early 1980s, when personal computers were rare and smoking less outré, though the classics students, unlike most of the students of those days, go round in formal dress, the males in suits and ties, and even braces, even when working in the garden. The more casually dressed students they despise as “hippies”, under which label they seem to lump everyone who doesn’t fit their social model.

The leader of the group is Henry Winter, who seems to have an inexhaustible supply of money. In the book Richard Papen does not, however, play Boswell to Winter’s Johnson, or treat him as the Great Gatsby, though there are echoes of those works in his writing from the periphery, observing the great man. It is only in retrospect that Papen recognises how much influence Henry Winter had over others in the group and so his descrip[tions are of his perceptions of the others, and he is quite self-effacing; we know what the others look like, because we see them through his eyes, but we never see him through their eyes.

The central theme of the book is the effects of their crime on members of the group — both in planning it and in trying to avoid discovery afterwards. Though in some ways the central group are the privileged among the privileged, and somewhat eccentric in their old-fashioned ways and manner of dress, in others they are fairly ordinary students, and their crimes are not those of monsters exiled from the human race. Crime is not confined to the “criminal classes”, nor are the criminals uniquely monstrous. What comes across is the banality of evil. Somehow amid their normal student pursuits — drinking, arguing, playing cards and, occasionally, studying — they murder one of their fellow students. In a way this book falls somewhere between Crime and Punishment and The Great Gatsby, but it isn’t as good as either.

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