The Secret History is one of those books that I saw thousands of times in bookshops and its cover has been in every account Instagram of bookworms, but to be honest I never took enough time to try to figure out what the fuss was all about. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was wondering in a bookshop and I found myself reading the first page. After that I couldn’t put it down.
The beginning is rather unexpected. We have a murder, but immediately after reading the first line we already know who is the victim, and we know who committed the crime. And this happens all before we even get to know who is narrating the story. Starting from there, the novel is a massive flashback that will explain how we got there.
It all starts with a boy, Richard Papen, who start studying at Hampden Collage, due to his will to change is social status and not pursuing his father’s footsteps. As soon as he arrives he will be fascinated by the mysterious group of students who have been taken under the protecting wing of Julian Morrow, an eccentric Classic professor. Henry, Charles, Francis, Bunny and Camilla look like gods to him. Rich and young, they represent everything he wants to be and have. Against all odds, and thanks to his knowledge of greek, Richard will find himself being part of the group and being accepted by Professor Morrow as one of his pupils. But it will not be how he imagined it. There is way more under the shiny surface, and after a surrealist chain of events Richard will be part of a plan to assassinate Bunny. The murder is sensed as the bottom of the horror they will endure, but it will reveal to be only the surfaces to all the other dark secrets that lied beneath the illusory aura of the group.
The group is mesmerizing and draws the complete attention of Richard. Henry is the most clever and charismatic, his indifference is seen as a sign of strenght and wisdom, but it is just the consequence of detachment from the world and from emotions. He is the one making the decisions and manipolating the others. Charles and Camilla, twin siblings, are very close, sometimes too close and this leads to some comments from Bunny that could hide more truth than they like to let people know. Francis is the smart buy lazy one. He is the one who accepts Richard since the beginning, maybe due also to his sexual interest in him. Bunny is the loud one, he has always something to say and money to borrow. His tongue doesn’t really know when it is time to stop, and he will have to pay a high price for it.
Finally, we have Richard Papen, our narrator. Through his eyes we can understand how fascinating this group is. He’s the typical passive narrator, who finds himself by chance to be spectator of extraordinary events. He has the luck to have a glimpse of a life that otherwise would be too far from him to be imagined. That is not a life meant for him. He is haunted by Bunny’s murder, and finds in writing the only relief.
The Secret History appeals perfectly to anyone who is fascinated by the bohemian atmosphere of young and rich intellectuals, who find having a conversation in greek a routine. Window to a golden world, the protagonists are eccentric enough to make easy to fall in love with them and their lifestyle. What makes this possible is also the element that distinguish them: the Greek. Both the language and culture have a deep role in their interactions. The myth of beauty, love and dionysiac euphoria is brought to the excess and they feel free from any kind of restrictions that others seems to have.
This novel is made by all elements that can easily fascinate the reader. The beginning is a clever way to build up suspence: we already know the outcome, we foresee the death of Bunny, but the only thing we can do is to wait for it to happen. While reading the book I found myself thinking often about his destiny, and this cover every event with a light but steady patina of inevitable doom. Once the murder happens I believed that the worst part was over. I couldn’t think of something else of same intensity to happen, but I was wrong. The murder of Bunny is only the first little step into something much bigger. After that, we have a quick escalation of events that will show us all the shades of darkness and human twisted wickedness. This is the greatness of Donna Tartt, since the beginning everything is based on suspence. These secrets were hanging in the air, overing the events, casting just a faint shadow on that, a shadow too horrible to be takes into consideration. But then, when they come down they hit hard because they are real now. I found myself starting to read another book to lighten the hardest part of The Secret History. This is happens when a book is great: it just punches you in the guts.