Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt // dark academia at its finest

Title: The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt
Publisher: Vintage
Publication Date: September 1992
Genre: Mystery, Contemporary, Adult

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

BLURB

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last – inexorably – into evil. (via Goodreads)

THOUGHTS

That’s it. I’ve done it. I’ve finally read The Secret History and my life is so much better for it. I think I finally found my aesthetic. Or at least what my fantasy aesthetic is.

My God. The fact that I only picked The Secret History just now is beyond me. This book. THIS book. This is considered the holy grail of dark academia. One that appeals to the mystics and the erudite.

Does such a thing as “the fatal flaw,” that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.

This book started with a murder. Told in the voice of Richard Papen, who, upon convincing himself that his “unhappiness was indigenous to that [Plano] place” decided to move to the East Coast to change major and attend an elitist college on scholarship. There, a group of closed off young students who studies the Classics caught his attention and the next thing he knows, he’s applying to be part of this select young scholars under the tutelage of a an eccentric but charismatic professor. Their lessons were unconventional, interesting. And when they’ve touched on a specific topic, particularly the Divine madness, the group became too obsessed with the idea that it lead to a bacchanal gone wrong and then some.

It was dark, twisted. But more so: interesting. I loved the idea of an isolated group of students who quotes Classics on a regular basis and uses dead languages to discreetly communicate. Of a group of people so obsessed with the idea of a something they learned at school that they decided to actually pursue it and do everything in their power to try it. Who rebels in alcohol and cigarettes while objectively discussing how to go about a murder, as if it is some project that they need to turn in to pass. That, coupled with a backdrop of a bleak and somber Vermont – made for an effective, atmospheric piece. It almost looked too pretentious if you think about it – but, somehow, it worked.

It is not so much the story I guess, but how it was told. At the onset, the murder was chillingly laid out and the perpetrators already revealed. Breaking the mold of the usual “crime/mystery” lit, it’s a whydunnit instead of a whodunnit – that is, it focused more on the motives of the perpetrator rather than its identity. And that made the ride so much more fascinating. What made this group of young scholars commit cold-blooded murder? How did our narrator became involved in such act?

Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.

But what I do love the most, I guess, is how there’s so many things left unwritten and up for the reader’s imagination – up for us to figure out. It gave the narration this rich layer of intrigue, that is hard to shake off, even if you closed the book and momentarily go back to your usual life. I love a book that makes me think. And coupled with the suspense, that foreboding sense that something bad (and then worse) is going to happen that hung heavy all through out the narrative, it is so hard to look away.

Since the murder was established head on, you would think that nothing can surprise me as much as it did but I was completely wrong. Donna Tartt kept it fresh – the suspense tight – by not only shrouding the details of the murder and revealing it painfully and slowly throughout the book – but by also making us hang into every word of a lonely, unreliable narrator. “He circles and circles and tries not to look. ” – making you question “Is everything really as it seems?

We think we have many desires, but in fact we have only one. What is it?”
“To live,” said Camilla.
“To live forever,” said Bunny, chin cupped in palm.

The Secret History

Towards the end of Part I and the rest of the book, the murder was discussed in this almost off-hand, objective manner that almost desensitizes the readers on how big of an act it is, how horrible. There’s an amoral aspect to it, that bleeds through even to the consciousness of the reader. Donna Tartt managed to make it seem as if the acts were justified. In pursuit of knowledge, curiosity. Almost an incidental casualty – as cold blooded as they may be. And one that is necessary. It was almost comical at times – especially that time during the funeral. It’s hard to imagine but, at the end of the day, these are just college students in their early twenties trying to figure out a way to get away with murder. You can only imagine how that goes.

“Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.”

There’s so many things that this book touched on, even exploring dangerous territory – [TW: drug abuse, alcohol abuse, physical abuse, incest, gaslighting(?), suicide]. The characters are so well fleshed out – jumping from the page with vivid clarity. The writing is a beautiful mix of lush language and contemporary exchanges. The intrigue and suspense hanged heavy in the narrative, the atmosphere almost consistently ominous. There’s something about reading The Secret History that automatically transports you into Vermont, in it’s autumn glow, as if you as well is in on the group’s secret. It was glorious.

OVERALL

If you are looking for a light read, this ain’t it. But this is for sure: this is one of the most unique books I’ve read ever and one that won’t leave my mind for a very, very long time. High scores across the board. Definitely recommended!

RATING

QUOTABLE QUOTES

“Death is the mother of beauty,” said Henry.
“And what is beauty?”
“Terror.”
“Well said,” said Julian. “Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.”
[…]
“And if beauty is terror,” said Julian, “then what is desire? We think we have many desires, but in fact we have only one. What is it?”
“To live,” said Camilla.
“To live forever,” said Bunny, chin cupped in palm.
The teakettle began to whistle.

Love doesn’t conquer everything. And whoever thinks it does is a fool.

“And besides, is death really so terrible a thing? It seems terrible to you, because you are young, but who is to say he is not better off now than you are? Or – if death is a journey to another place – that you will not see him again?”
He opened his lexicon and began to search for his place. “It does not do to be frightened of things about which you know nothing,” he said. “You are like children. Afraid of the dark.”

There is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty – unless she is wed to something more meaningful – is always superficial. It is not that your Julian chooses solely to concentrate on certain, exalted things; it is that he chooses to ignore others equally as important.”

Forgive me for all the things I did but mostly for the ones that I did not.

I AM SOFT FOR THIS. >.<

“Well, you know what Julian would say,” said Francis. “There are such things as ghosts. People everywhere have always known that. And we believe in them every bit as much as Homer did. Only now, we call them by different names. Memory. The unconscious.”

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Auditor by profession and a 'round-the-clock geek 🤓 from the 🇵🇭. I'm a coffee-holic INTJ with an unhealthy obsession with books and stationery. I'm also a Sssslytherin 🐍. I word-vomit over at Twitter and posts book pics at Instagram: @pagesandcc . I also blog at https://pagesandcoffeecups.com/ .

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