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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating read from a major new talent, 13 Aug 2003
This review is from: The Secret History (Paperback)
I’d like to start this review by mentioning a few things that The Secret History is not. It is not the best book ever written, as many people seem to believe; I don’t think it is even the best book of the 1990s. On the other hand, it IS a breath-taking debut novel which utterly engrossed me. Tartt offers a rich, complex, disturbing and gripping experience that is hard to shoe-horn into any particular genre. After the flurry surrounding the publication of The Little Friend, which broke Tartt’s 10 year silence, it’s difficult to come to her work without expectations, but The Secret History works best when you don’t have any idea of what to expect—you become surrounded by the menacing, almost suffocating atmosphere which the book creates so completely. Brideshead Revisited and The Great Gatsby are often used to describe Tartt’s style and voice, and she certainly does create a wonderful picture of an American ivory tower. However, Doestoevsky and Bret Easton Ellis (with whom Tartt was at college) are equally valid comparisons.
As other reviewers have noticed, the book falls into 2 parts. The first follows Richard Papen as he arrives at an elite college to study Classics with the erudite and enthralling Julian, and seeks entry into the clique of Julian’s five other students. As Henry, Bunny, Francis, and twins Charles and Camilla begin to include Richard in their circle, he realises that they have a dark secret, and he becomes more and more caught up in their world. The second part deals with the aftermath of a murder committed by one of these students, in which Richard and the others are intimately involved. As the questioning begins, loyalties and friendships begin to give way to self-preservation instincts, and trust becomes a luxury. Perhaps inevitably, the second part is weaker—Tartt’s real strength lies in portraying the group so that Richard’s desire to be accepted into their inner circle becomes the reader’s desire as well—as they are initially described to the reader, Bunny, the twins, Henry and Francis are fascinating and seductive. The mystery surrounding them is subtly created, but at the same time deeply disturbing and menacing. In the second part, after the murder of one of the group, there are fewer secrets and cracks surface in the friendships — much of the menace has dissipated, but by this stage the reader is so involved with the characters that the story continues to grip the attention.
Some reviewers have remarked that Tartt fails to develop some of her characters fully, and Charles certainly remains sadly underdeveloped. A little more emphasis on Francis’s character in the first part of the book would help his increased prominence in the second part. To a large extent, however, I think the shadowy edges of Camilla and Henry are deliberate—we are only meeting them through Richard’s narration and interpretation, and these two whom he loved the most were perhaps the two whom he remained farthest away from and failed to touch. Richard himself is problematic. Because he is the narrator, we feel close and connected to him. On the other hand, Tartt hasn’t invested quite enough into explaining his interactions with others. Why do other characters like Richard so much—Judy Poovey, for example? Richard describes long afternoons spent with the group at Francis’s house, but we learn very little of his contribution to their friendship—why do these people like him and invite him to join them? Richard’s drug-taking is also perhaps a little overdone—Tartt clearly intends him to be an ordinary (if alienated) student drawn into murder and deceit, but throwaway incidents such as his coke-snorting in a carpark (which is never mentioned again and seems to have little effect on him) are unconvincing compared to earlier events like the Christmas in the hippie’s studio where Richard’s reactions are believable and understandable.
The book has been criticized for dealing with rich, snobbish students. Don’t let that put you off. Neither should anyone feel intimidated by the Classical references. Ultimately, Tartt’s erudition is only skin-deep, and perhaps creates an illusion that the book possesses more depth than it really does. Despite that, the novel heralds the arrival of a stunning talent—the cloud surrounding the details of the first murder is a wonderful touch. It’s even more astonishing when you learn that this was Tartt’s first novel, and she was only 19 when she began it (28 when it was published). Don’t expect ‘the best book in the world’ as some have suggested (a hideously unfair description!) and you will find in The Secret History a wonderful read that you simultaneously don’t want to put down and don’t want to reach the end of. Blackly comic, rich, compelling and disturbing, I recommend it to anyone who loves diving into a good book!
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