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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Do not trifle with divinity, 28 July 2013
This review is from: The Secret History (Paperback)
I am a classicist and I had avoided this book - ironically enough, with the foolish, cultivated arrogance of the characters - on the grounds that it would probably just be using the subject for glamour and give a false impression of it. I am pleased to report I couldn't have been more wrong. It was a literally stunning read, from the moment I opened the first page and the narrator described how he and four of his classmates had murdered the sixth of their number, right up until the reflective epilogue when, for once, all loose ends up are tied in a way worthy of the originality of the preceding 600 pages.

More than enough people have reviewed this book for me to need to describe the premise or Richard, Charles, Camilla, Francis, Henry and Bunny. Despite all receiving the same education and all (except Richard) being from similar upper-middle class backgrounds, they are all memorable, and possibly made more realistic by the fact that Tartt doesn't try to give each one a single, off-the-wall distinguishing trait to justify their similarities: they're a group of friends who get on but occasionally want to kill each other, of course they will be 80% similar, and it's great for an author to understand that. Richard is both unremarkable and an enigma: the development of his efforts to become someone else by establishing himself in this little insular group of friends is done perfectly, an analysis of the effect of upbringing without turning into a psychiatrist's notebook. While he's not the most interesting of the characters, that's one of the book's achievements: it's rather the point. Another achievement is that every reader will probably have a different favourite character.

But I will say this: as critics sometimes say of books about e.g. London that 'the city is a character', in this book the discipline (in both senses of the word) of Classics is a character, both in itself and incarnated in the charming Julian Morrow, the class teacher. The half-voluntary isolation, the sense of knowing something others don't know is not only reminiscent of Classics classes (it's a bit of a stereotype, but one that's so rarely described with such truth that it gets away with it) but also chimes disconcertingly well with the plot of Euripides' Bacchae, a literary masterpiece that still leaves me in a moral quandary. It is central to the plot of this book, and Tartt more than does it justice. She brings up and evokes the defining precepts of Classics with enough erudition to delight a classicist, but just the right tone of explanation, neither reticent nor patronising, to make the book equally accessible to those who haven't slaved over prose composition or muddled their way through philosophy and ancient codes of warfare.

As for Julian, none of the classicists knows that much about him and yet they all feel a privileged connection to him; Henry, who practically thinks in Greek, is correspondingly closest to him. Quite elusive at first, he becomes almost like a good friend, but one that can never be known fully, evoking the same frustration as the age-old 'inability to write like a Greek/Roman'. He has friends in high places, but is mistrusted by other teachers who misunderstand him because he doesn't bother to engage in niceties with them. The profound but concentrated education he provides clearly prepares students for anything if they make the most of it, but it can clearly go horribly wrong if bestowed on those who are half-hearted or just not up to it, as with the elenchus of Socrates.

Evidently, 'trying to understand the Greeks' DOES go horribly wrong, and as with Socrates, Julian's merits become as obviously questionable as they are obviously authentic, yet in a scary and dishearteningly inevitable way, it is the hysterical young adults who are left to pick up the pieces when they are patently not morally equipped to do so. I think this terrible shadow of despair cast over the story from the beginning is what made me start, continue and ultimately finish this book when I knew it was about 5 murderers trying to avoid punishment. I was left with a profound sense that the punishment they DO receive is not the one they deserved. Greek tragedy-worthy moral reflection in a book about university is just astounding. As for the writing, I rarely enjoy first-person points of view, but this is spot on: introspective without compromising plot and pace, descriptive without straying too far from a person's likely train of thought. There are some really beautiful passages, the dialogue is witty and well placed, and the literary allusions are varied and always appropriate.

I have only 2 possible criticisms. One is that some readers may not 'buy into' the one semi-supernatural but integral element; personally I feel that the incisive analysis of the rest of the book largely makes up for it, but there is an element of the ridiculous that 'you had to be there' just doesn't cover, and the temporal distance means the 'believing is seeing' idea doesn't quite work. (It is certainly not something that can be tested.) In my case it was only habituation to Classics that stopped me scoffing a little; for others, perhaps, in reverse, the novelty of it will mean that its incredibility is taken to be the point. The other arguable fault is that actions that would be anecdote-worthy one-offs for most people, such as 'going for an aimless wander in the middle of the night and bumping into one of the others acting oddly' and 'getting dangerously drunk/high and being incompetently nursed or driven to the hospital by one of the others' became somewhat repetitive and motif-like, but in a book of this scope, that's forgivable. Certainly overall, the accelerating spiral into madness is absolutely fantastic.

I heartily recommend this book whether you're a classicist or not, although I suggest you read the 'Bacchae' first (while it's not necessary, you can read it in 2 hours and the experience is much better if you know what Tartt's trying to do). As with anything that deals with 'morally questionable' characters or actions, I would only say that it isn't a book you should buy for your aspiring classicist child, unless you are sure they have a very firm sense of right and wrong. I've had 9 years of Classics study 'wrecking my head', and I still found this book, and my own sympathy for its characters, absolutely terrifying.
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