Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” is slow burn as slow burn can be. The characters develop extremely slowly, over pages of back story, descriptions of peculiarities, seeming trivial incidents that do not mean anything, but they add up to something meaningful in the end. I thought that it was a combination of the intellectual leaning of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” and the cinematic style of Robert Altman. How pristine philosophies can turn into horror when implemented in life without humane concern is something that she portrays like Hitchcock. The many characters, lack of a central protagonist and the sense of constant chatter is something that reminds you of Altman.
Richard, the narrator, is a Californian middle class kid, bored of his small town of Piano, and of his parents. He decides to get admitted to Hampden College in New England and encounters Julian Marrow, a mysterious teacher of ancient Greek. He befriends the fellow students Henry, Bunny and others who are devout followers of Julian’s teaching and blind admirers of his personality. Things start going wrong when they practice bacchanal, a mystical practice of losing the rational self and being in the moment. It is all the way down from there, all told through Richard’s tentative narrative style.
Tartt is a great storyteller and has an amazing command on language, if you are patient enough to sit through her long winded description of scenes that build a haunting environment of mystery. There are pages you want to skip through because nothing seems to be happening, but you don’t, since you are afraid you will miss something. She is also a master of sensual description. She creates a milieu through visual, aural and olfactory descriptions of places, people and scenes.
Her characters are gray throughout, they are detestable and selfish, morally ambiguous, secretive, afraid, and likable. There is no character that is completely positive, or completely negative. She builds suspense through selective release of information about the characters, and the first person narrative works fabulously well because of its ability to allow her to do that. You always get a feeling that she is hiding many things, and she is doing that, but that strategy keeps the reader on her toes. There are no major twists as such, and several things can be guessed well in advance, but how they play out, and how she keeps you guessing is a wonderful skill Tartt displays.
The setting of a liberal arts college, the background of ancient greek, and the mystique of Julian gives her ample opportunity to talk about philosophy, either through her characters or directly in the narrators voice. (There were a few reviewers of “Whiskey and Suicide” who thought people do not talk philosophy in their day to day life. I invite them to read Tartt’s book) The traps of being too philosophical, the difference between knowing philosophy from books and doing philosophy, the fact that morality is not automatically built by reading philosophy, are brought out very well by Tartt in the book.
If you do not mind reading long but exquisite descriptions, slow burn in term of built up, no major twists, you would love this book. You can learn a lot from Tartt as an author. How to build suspense by hiding things, how to describe through sensual inputs, how to use language to enhance narrative are some things budding authors can learn from her. My rating would be “Highly Recommended” with a score of 4.5/5.