Donna Tartt,
The Secret History
(Knopf, 1992)

The Secret History is a gripping, moving, thoroughly riveting novel that affected me as much as any book I have ever read. Even after finishing it, the story continued to consume my mind. I fell asleep thinking about it, and I woke up thinking about it. The characters (Richard, Henry, Francis, Charles, Camilla, Julian and Bunny) are fascinating, mysterious, oddly charming and -- but for lack of flesh -- completely real to me. Despite their faults, their fatal flaws and their sins, I am mesmerized by them all. I want to know them, talk to them, be one of them. Each one of the principal players in this drama will remain in my memory forever, especially Camilla -- for some reason, she haunts me; just the thought of her makes me tingle and feel more alive.

You might think that identifying a murder victim and his murderers at the very beginning of a novel, particularly a long novel such as this, would make for a less than suspenseful read. Not when Donna Tartt is telling the story. This thriller is jam-packed with intensity and suspense from start to finish. I cannot point to any single section where the story got bogged down or seemed drawn-out. The final 40 pages were incredible because I really had no idea how things would play out. Several times, I literally had to put the book down momentarily to catch my breath and let the shocking effects of what I had just read reverberate through my being.

In a way, I am surprised at the popularity of this book. I like to consider myself a scholar, and I find the idea of completely subsuming oneself in the world of the ancients -- wallowing in the classics, I like to call it -- highly appealing. This cadre of Greek scholars, indulged by their rarified, half-man, half-deity professor, lived in a world of their very own: communicating in ancient Greek, going about their lives in a Gothic environment, interacting with their fellow students yet never thinking of them as their equals. I daresay that few besides myself find such a way of life appealing, and that is why I marvel to some degree at the success of this novel. This basically reinforces the obvious fact that Tartt is an incredibly gifted writer.

I, right along with the narrator Richard, became immediately captivated by these characters and yearned to enter their world -- despite the fact that they all drank and smoked to a degree unimaginable even to Hemingway, were no strangers to drugs and resorted, ultimately, to murder one of their own. The inscrutable Henry, brooding over this entire narrative, had me entirely in his grip. To be honest, I myself was somewhat complicit in Bunny's death because everything that led up to it caused me to understand and essentially agree with the justifications for what was basically cold-blooded murder.

At the very root of this novel is a desire to somehow not think about anything, to achieve a transcendental moment of utter freedom. It is this cherished desire that led our cadre of scholars out into the woods in an attempt to summon Dionysus by performing an ancient Greek bacchanalian ceremony. The group met with both success and tragedy, setting the stage for the intense drama that plays itself out over the course of the novel. Everything that happened after this pivotal moment seems almost inevitable now, looking back, but I was continually shocked and troubled by the details that gradually emerged. Perhaps I should have seen the ending coming, but truthfully I did not and was thus deeply shocked by it.

I have been known to gush about my favorite novels, but if ever a novel deserved to be indulged in and gushed over it is this one. Tartt's debut novel is simply incredible. Undoubtedly there are some who will find The Secret History pretentious or complain about its length -- I can only say that I absolutely loved every word of it.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 6 April 2003

Buy it from