Reviews and Other Features: The Secret History

The Secret History

I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.

These aren’t the opening lines of the bestselling novel Donna Tartt, but more than any they seem to encapsulate the sombre tone and set the scene for the Greek-style tragedy that is to come.

Told by the sensitive and introspective Richard Pappen, a latecomer to the group that the story is centered around, this is far from your average book with its conventional narrator.

In fact, the murder of one of the group is announced at the beginning of the book, being reminiscent more of a Columbo mystery than Poirot. It’s not your conventional crime story, and its narrator is a flawed outsider, with more than a passing resemblance to The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carroway.

Set in Vermont, New England, The Secret History tells the story of a closely knit group of six classics students at the small, elite, Hampden College. After discovering that ‘Bunny’ Corcoran is the victim, we have to wait for more details as the mournful Pappen then tells the story chronologically.

Pappen weaves a tale, as he slowly sets the scene and the layered context, drenched in reflection and sentiment. Telling the story years later he explains why he is an outsider to his family, why the group are so reclusive and just why it is so appealing to him. He then explains how he is able to gain access to them all and how to differing levels he is accepted by the group, and their teacher Julian Morrow. And later how it all unravels.

The Secret History was a huge success when released as Donna Tartt’s debut novel in 1992 and really lit up the literary stratosphere. The clever structure and unusual setting helps. We are transported to a world where contemporary time doesn’t seem to exist and characters have very little outside influence. The group are in ‘splendid isolation’, and rather than be distracted by the campus, we are instead allowed to focus on what Pappen reveals about the other five students. The book poses the question of how we would react in the same situation, but it doesn’t hide away from telling us that we would never find ourselves in that situation.

It’s 544 page length, slow storytelling and at times peculiar characters won’t be for everyone, but this book is a magnificent achievement. Ernest Hemingway famously described courage as “grace under pressure”, and what Tartt achieves is reveal cowardice as inevitable failure under pressure. She knows like we all know, that we all full of our secrets and our own histories, and there are reasons why we won’t always want to share them.