The Secret History by Donna Tartt


More than a decade ago my sister bought me The Modern Library: The 200 Best Books Written in English Since 1950 (Carmen Callil and Colm Toibin, Picador, 1999).  There are lots of books of the same ilk and any ‘best’ list is bound to be subjective.  So it mostly sits untouched on the bookshelf next to my dictionaries. But sometimes the forest of books-I-haven’t-read-yet is so bewildering I can’t decide where to go next.  And that’s when it comes in handy; it sets me on a new path

And that is how I came to read The Secret History.

In his first year at a selective college in Vermont, Richard Papen’s dogged desire to study ancient Greek sees him drawn into the world of Svengali-like teacher Julian Morrow and his elite band of five, wealthy students.

Richard quickly becomes infatuated with the group: Henry, Francis, twins Charles and Camilla, and Bunny.  But when the first four bring ancient Greek ideas out of the classroom and into real life – “Beauty is terror”, “the terrible seduction of the Dionysiac ritual” – Richard is inexorably drawn into a series of events that make him an accessory to murder and this tale “the only story I will ever be able to tell.”

The Secret History is an erudite thriller, unusual and deftly handled. There’s no sense of dislocation – college life is solidly present throughout – yet Richard is so dazzled by the wealth, charm, and intellect of the four that their crimes seem to be separate, other; reasonable, even. Compelling and chilling.

Rating: **** One of the best books I’ve read this year.

PS As with Theft: A Love Story (see previous review) I read The Secret History some few months ago but unlike with Theft I could recall the plot without recourse to the blurb on the book cover. Just saying!

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