The Secret History

Donna Tartt

Penguin 1993
A book review by Danny Yee © 1994
studying ancient Greek warps the minds of the young?

When I first came across The Secret History in the bookshop, I checked it out in the hope that it was a historical novel based on Procopius' history of the same title (a contemporary "behind the scenes" account of sixth century Byzantium). Though this was not the case — and I ended up reading Tartt's novel much later on the recommendation of friends — the identity of names is not a complete coincidence. The Secret History tells the story of the classical Greek class, six students and their teacher, at a liberal arts college on the east coast of the United States, through the reminiscences of one of those students. These seven characters dominate the novel completely, standing forth with the clarity and intensity of actors in a Greek tragedy. The "normal" events of college life — the drug-dealing, the sex, the suicides —, which would have been the subject of most novels with this setting, end up being relegated to insignificance; they are simply the backdrop to the terrible drama that unfolds.

Despite the first person narration, the narrator's personality does not intrude into the novel. He is a passive, almost "recording" character, who discovers rather than initiates, and who plays the role the chorus would have played in a real tragedy; he comments on the action and his hindsight replaces prophecy as the voice of fate. I could go on at length about other literary devices and parallels, and indeed many of them are explicitly raised; The Secret History is sprinkled with literary references. (The obvious comparison to Crime and Punishment is made by both the blurb on my copy and one of the characters.) This is never done artificially, however, and genuine authorial/narratorial insight is combined with appropriateness to the context and characterisation.

Hopefully this will not have turned off potential readers without an interest in the classics. The Secret History is a thriller at heart, a very effective psychological thriller where the tension is provided by the gradual revelation of the threads and links in the weave of relationships between the central characters rather than by uncertainty (the murder which centres the book is described in the prologue). Tartt has managed to combine the complexity and careful detail of a novel with the beautiful and terrible simplicity of drama, and The Secret History is one of the more engaging works of fiction I have read for some time.

January 1994

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%T The Secret History
%A Tartt, Donna
%I Penguin
%D 1993
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0140167773
%P 660pp