The Secret History

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. 

This is the opening sentence of The Secret History. It’s held up as one of the archetypes in literature classrooms. Mystery in the first line. But it’s also incredibly bold. Within the two-page prologue that follows this opening sentence, the author tells you everything about the murder: Bunny is dead; we killed him; the time and location of the murder; how the murder worked out (disguised as a hiking accident); the searching for the body (involving the whole town, the college, the police and FBI); the outcome of the murderers (suspicion and guilt-free). It even gives the exact moment when the action of murder happens. It gives away most of the book. That’s confidence on the author’s part and I tip my hat to her. And to think this is Donna Tartt’s debut novel written in her twenties – what a masterpiece!

Millions of English literature students probably take it apart line by line and write essays with a word count of thousands every year. So again, as most of the time, I only offer my humble, un-academic, personal opinions and hope it’s at least fresh and genuine.

Fascinating and masterful

There was a description of Henry by the first-person narrator, Richard: “He was like a propagandist, routinely withholding information, leaking it only when it served his purposes.” Which is the feel of the whole story. We can only see things from Richard’s point of view: there are a lot of things going on on the surface. But also lots more happened that Richard was not aware of until much later. Secrets upon secrets, only unveiled retrospectively. 

The act of murder was told twice. Once in the prologue, and once at where it happened in the storyline, in almost exactly the same words. However, reading the murder in action, 300 pages in, it still made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I knew this was going to happen all along, but the tension of the moment and Henry’s exact words were still very impactful. I believe that’s masterful storytelling.

I realised one thing halfway through and I was really excited with this discovery. To my limited fiction-writing knowledge, an author usually shows the setting, the action, the feeling and emotion. In contrast, non-fiction writers usually tell us about events and experiences. The narrator of this book (Richard) very often switches to a ‘telling’ mode as he looks back at these events from a future vantage point, which gives a memoir feel to it. This adds a dimension to the story itself. We’re not just reading a story as it happens, we’re reading the retelling of this story from Richard’s point of view. And that makes the fiction incredibly real and almost tangible. 

The obsession with language was fascinating too. In the middle of a tense or coded conversation, Richard would note down the details of the choice of the words as if he can’t help it. It’s a university story with well-educated young men, shrouded in the mystery of Greek language and myth. 

Most of the actions happen in one of these locations: Richard’s room in an on-campus accommodation building, the twins’ flat, Henry’s house, Francis’ house, Francis’ house in the country. I know it’s not a short list in terms of settings, but at the end of it, I was really sick of these people’s living spaces. I think it’s more because of the unpleasant things that happen in these places rather than a lack of variety. Wherever they go, there is a sickness and darkness to the place.

Everybody was so drunk and drugged most of the time. If I’m able to do a word cloud for the book, ‘drunk’ would be one of the largest words. As a natural result, most of them are sick, tired and depressed most of the time. I guess it’s only natural that they can’t get rid of that dreamlike or nightmare-ish state around the event of the murder. The blood of the victim haunts them day and night. It’s suffocating as if I read pages and pages without breathing like I was underwater.

However, Richard uses a ‘confiding’, not ‘confessing’, tone. It’s like he’s telling you a story cool and composed with a bit of a distance from the events. He’s not all over the place.

The Cover

At the first glance, it’s a pretty boring standard cover, just black, with big font size for the title and even bigger size for the author. However it feels nice and comfortable: the black cover has a velvet lamination, which doesn’t slide in hands and the classic Penguin paper makes the 630 pages book soft and snug. Upon closer inspection, the simple white text is actually debossed into the paper with a matt silver foil. For the overall cover design, this version was published in 1993. For a book cover designed almost 30 years ago, it doesn’t look dated. It’s actually quite modern, that was an achievement. I guess that’s the power of being ‘classic’ and I grew to love the cover over the eight days I held and read the book.

Reading Habit

I’ve been selective of what book I read alongside what book. At the moment, I read one book in bed and one in the living room. I try to read one thick and one thin; one written by a man and one by a woman; one speculative novel and one non-speculative, to have some variety. When I started reading The Secret History, I was a third of the way into The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Donna Tartt is a woman writer alright, but I had no idea the story was about boys. So for a week, I have two novels both with a young-boy first-person narrator going alongside each other. It was slightly confusing, their faces overlapped a bit like a double exposure photo. But it was interesting to compare them. What would Kvothe do witnessing Bunny’s murder? How would the Greek boys exist in Arcanum University? Especially since Kvothe also uses this ‘telling’ mode that I mentioned above as well.

The Secret History was never made into a film. But that’s something I can look forward to. An online article casts Timothée Chalamet as Francis which I can totally see will work (except he’s a bit short?). If it is, who will be your Camilla, who will be your Francis?

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