Hampden College, Hampden, Vermont. Even the name had an austere Anglican cadence, to my ear at least, which yearned hopelessly for England and was dead to the sweet dark rhythms of little mission towns. For a long time I looked at a picture of the building they called Commons. It was suffused with a weak, academic light—different from Plano, different from anything I had ever known—a light that made me think of long hours in dusty libraries, and old books, and silence.Richard Papen, a vaguely unhappy young man from California, decides on a whim to apply for Hampden College in Vermont. When he arrives, he notices a group of five eccentric and unapproachable students—they are the Classics majors, whose existence is almost completely independent from that of the rest of the college. Having studied Greek for two years himself, Richard is tempted to join them, but he is told that Julian, the professor who single-handedly constitutes the Classics department, selects his students by methods nobody can quite divine. But Richard does end up joining their circle, and in this way a tragedy is set in motion.
We are told in the prologue of The Secret History that there has been a murder—a student named Edmund, known as Bunny, is dead. We are also told who is responsible for his death, so the whodunit is never a mystery. Don’t think for a second, however, that this makes The Secret History any less suspenseful. The mystery is why they did it; what the exact circumstances that led to the murder were. And that was more than enough to keep me completely riveted.
But the suspense is actually only a small part of why I enjoyed The Secret History so much. There’s also the writing, which I loved; the dark and Autumn-y atmosphere, which makes it a perfect read for this time of year; the literary references and the way it effectively navigates the fine like between intelligent intertextuality and pretentiousness. But above all, I loved it for the characterization.
Donna Tartt plays with the reader’s sympathies masterfully. When we get to the actual murder, which happens more or less halfway through the story, I was about ready to strangle Bunny with my bare hands. He’s a repulsive character if I ever found one, and I sympathized with the murderers much more than I did with the victim—which only goes to show how chillingly effective Tartt’s storytelling is. Of course, she then devotes the second half of the book to letting the full horror of what was done sink in.
I love the fact that all the ethical issues raised in The Secret History were explored complexly. We can all agree that murder is bad, and that is simple enough. But the myriad reasons why people do it are complex, as are the feelings and motivations that lead them do it, and the ways in which they deal with it afterwards. There was a passage towards the end of the book that I regret not having marked: Richard says something to the effect that Julian’s great talent was to take a group of misfits and turn their insecurities into a feeling of superiority. I suspect that this passage holds the key to many of the questions the story raises. How far would any of us go to feel unique, justified, perhaps even loved? How much of what they do is simply a way of dealing with a lifelong feeling of alienation?
The Secret History doesn’t minimize the horror of taking a life, but neither does it moralize: it lets what was done speak for itself. And the reason why it works so well is because it makes readers care about the characters. The events unfold with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. You hope against hope that something, anything, will stop them before it’s too late. But all along you also know that the book’s ominous atmosphere isn’t there merely for effect.
It is easy to see things in retrospect. But I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen. Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together—my future, my past, the whole of my life—and I was going to sit up in bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!Other opinions: Stella Matutina, Read Warbler, Stephanie’s Confessions of a Book-a-holic, Bibiolatry, Journey With Books, Everyday Reads
Some things are too terrible to grasp at once. Other things—naked, sputtering, indelible in their horror—are too terrible to really grasp at all. It is only later, in solitude, in memory, that the realization dawns: when the ashes are cold; when the mourners have departed; when one looks around and finds oneself—quite to one’s surprise—in an entirely different world.
It was this unreality of character, this cartoonishness if you will, which was the secret of his appeal and what finally made his death so sad. Like any great comedian, he colored his environment wherever he went; in order to marvel at his constancy you wanted to see him in all sorts of alien situations: Bunny riding a camel, Bunny babysitting, Bunny in space. Now, in death, this constancy crystallized and became something else entirely: he was an old familiar jokester cast—with surprising effect—in a tragic role.
(Did I miss yours?)