A thrilling read for anybody who has ever been a student introduces us to the ancient world that a few students try to awaken and charms with its chilly atmosphere, ghosts of the past, and characters that always are a step ahead than the reader – if you’re wondering what to read next on a cold afternoon, in The Secret History review we’ll try to explain why it’s a perfect mystery/crime novel for the longer evenings.
Richard Papen, coming from a working-class background, leaves his family behind in California to study in a college in Vermont. Desperate to study classics, he is puzzled as he gets turned down by a teacher, Julian, despite his proficiency in an ancient language. The professor, however, doesn’t mentor just anybody. After observing the group of well-off students that spark his attention and a short episode that proves his knowledge of Greek, Richard is invited to study with fascinating outsiders – and as he gets tangled in lies, he is introduced to the deepest secrets of the elitary circle that extend beyond every possible boundary of modern morality.
Donna Tartt introduces us to the world of somewhat bohemian, cool teenagers who are a bit different than the usual students – from their views on the world, with silent and cool detachment and indifference to hoi polloi, to their admiration of the life that is living only on the pages of history books. What makes them relatable, though, are the traces of student life they indulge in: drinking far too much, parties (however fancy and distinctive) and relaxed attitude to life in a way that suits their upper-crust lifestyles. Fascinating, independent, in love with the classics, they become wooed by a teacher who has been mingling with the greatest of his times – it’s a story filled with remarkable characters, none of whose are able to remain unnoticed with their charisma, eclectic tastes, but also a dose of naivety bathed in cold-blooded confidence worth a killer (or an “inconspicuous” gang, for that matter).
The foundation of the story – a murder – is strikingly revealed over the first few pages; and that’s just the beginning of an interesting psychological study and exploration of characters and the changes which the characters experience, and a gentle push towards a chain of secrets and mysteries that are told us in the mysterious atmosphere. Sacrum mixes with profanum; the Greek philosophy and morals are struck by modern life on a university campus. The descriptions of the behaviour that lead to unleashing the motives of an event that the book kicks off with help us get to know the characters, pity them, and observe from the distance – we stand with the narrator as he leads us through the story.
What makes the book distinctive is also the atmosphere that Tartt carefully crafts throughout the book. All we know about the ancient times – from the philosophy, to the mystic rituals – is embedded into a small group that is oblivious to what’s going on in the world. They breathe Greek and Rome; they believe they are the selected ones who were chosen to learn about things that small minds will never be able to understand. The ideals of the ancient world are present all along as we turn the pages: the rituals and celebrations or the philosophy of beauty and wisdom are omnipresent, if not literally, in character’s beliefs, then in narrator’s thoughts and descriptions of the quiet student town. The atmosphere of the academia is emphasised thanks to the mysticism that surrounds Charles, Camilla, Henry, Francis, Bunny – and Richard. Secret after a secret makes us wonder if we can trust anybody – even the narrator has handpicked a selection of lies to be respected and fit in.
With its atmosphere of the world behind the gates of a college campus and Illuminati-esque charm of a secret society made of people bound together by one dark secret, the book charms with mysteries and guessworks laid out chapter by chapter. A must-read if you’re deeply fascinated by the ancient world, it’s also a contemporary classic picked up a generation after a generation – as they discover the common things and the magic of a fable that could be a part of oral tradition – just like the myths of the Greeks and Romans.