The Secret History

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.

Summary from Goodreads

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“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.”

The first sentence of The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s debut novel of 1992, might be superior to at least 90% of the first sentences of all of the books I’ve ever read. I mean, how can you put down a book after a first sentence like that?

You can’t.

The Secret History is narrated by Richard Papen, a Gatsby-esque, Californian 19-year-old who after a year of medical school (mistake) and basically estrangement from his (mostly indifferent) parents, travels to New England to attend Hampden College, where he plans to study English Literature. Quickly, however, he falls under the spell of a group of Classics students who study with one very particular, ever-so-exclusive professor, separate to the rest of the students at the university. He talks his way into the class, and into the lives of the rich and enigmatic group.

It turns out to be the worst decision he’s ever made.

The novel is, at its heart, a thriller, but it’s a thriller that instead of asking the usual ‘who dunnit’, instead leaves us asking – how? How does it come to be that this group of – admittedly eccentric but not overtly unusual – students murder one of their classmates?

It’s remarkable that in this 600-some page tome, Tartt manages not to let up on the sense of foreboding disaster for even a second. If the group aren’t threatened with exposure from outside sources, they are crumbling from within. It’s quite a situation when you discover that the murder you committed together really only scratches the surface of the mess.

It’s funny – there were many elements in this novel that were familiar. From the group of classmates reading way too much into their school work, to the group themselves; bookish Henry, hot but creepy twins Charles and Camilla and poor half closeted Frances, all felt somewhat archetypal. Richard, even, the working class boy who invents himself a new history to fit in with his rich friends, didn’t feel new as such. And yet, in Tartt’s hands the story felt completely unique.

The richness of her language and the perfect balance between plot and character – what I loved so much about this and The Goldfinch was the way that Tartt establishes an expansive and complicated situation and then delves deep into how her characters respond to it – create a disturbing, hedonistic, shocking and anxious world that I couldn’t help but get lost in.

There is a reason so many people recommend this one.

The Goldfinch

Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and an absent father, miraculously survives a catastrophe that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Theo is tormented by longing for his mother and down the years he clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld. 

the-goldfinch

I will begin with saying that The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt comes in at 864 pages. Going into this book, I was incredibly intimidated. Generally speaking, I can finish a book in around ten days (slow, by book blogger standards I know. Quit judging me. I like TV, OKAY?!?) I think it took me a little over 2 weeks to finish. I was very sceptical about its ability to engage me for the amount of time it took to read it.

I needn’t have been.

Tartt’s narrative voice engrossed me from start to finish. In Theodore Decker we are gifted a protagonist who is deeply thoughtful, frequently wrong, occasionally disgusting but ultimately someone we desperately want to reach the point of okay.

This novel starts with a bang (poor taste? I apologise), with the death of Theodore’s mother in a terrorist attack. Theodore states that he views his mother’s death as ‘the dividing mark’ in his life. While the beginning of the book gives us a glimpse of the Before – enough to understand the depth of Theo’s loss – The Goldfinch is a narrative of After. ‘Things would have turned out better if she had lived’, but Tartt isn’t interested in better so much as determinism, grief and criminal activity.

Also, the writing is gorgeous. You know that feeling when you want to just eat something but it isn’t technically food? That’s how I felt about Donna Tartt’s prose.

‘Better wasn’t even the word for how I felt. There wasn’t a word for it. It was more that things too small to mention – laughter in the hall at school, a live gecko scurrying in a tank in the science lab – made me feel happy one moment and the next like crying. Sometimes, in the evenings, a damp gritty wind blew in the windows from Park Avenue, just as the rush hour traffic was thinning and the city was emptying for the night; it was rainy, trees leafing out, spring deepening into summer; and the forlorn cry of horns on the street, the dank smell of the wet pavement had an electricity about it, a sense of crowds and static, lonely secretaries and fat guys with bags of carry-out, everywhere the ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and struggling to live.’

How dare you, Donna. How dare you.

Theo’s mother was an art historian who died in a museum bombing of which Theo was one of the few survivors. Just before her death, she had been telling Theo all about a painting she adored, The Goldfinch. When Theo awakes after the explosion, confused and traumatised,  a dying man grabs hold of the painting and begs Theo to take it with him, to save it from destruction.

Theo does. Taking the painting is a choice that will define much of the next fourteen years of his life, a choice that will keep him afraid, addicted (Theo abuses drugs and alcohol for much of the novel) and eventually will drag him into the criminal underworld. Throughout the novel the picture functions as an emotional stand-in for Theo’s mother. In the months and years immediately following her death it lives underneath his bed, where he takes it out at night and memorises the lines of it. After a few years and increasing police interest in it (several paintings were stolen from the museum by opportunistic looters following the explosion), Theo locks the painting away out of fear. He buries the thing in a storage locker outside of New York and tries to live his life as if it never existed at all in the same way as he tries not to deal with his trauma – that’s where the drugs come in.

Ultimately, neither tactic works, for the grief or for dealing with the painting.

Though I spend much of my time writing about books, storytelling is one of those terms I have tended to take for granted. Narrative structure isn’t something I often consciously consider. During The Goldfinch, it’s impossible not to think about it. It was as if Donna Tartt were sitting on my shoulder whispering this is how you tell a freaking STORY, fool.

Theodore Decker isn’t just the protagonist, he’s the narrator. At various points throughout the novel he presents us with details of a vague present, telling us these events we’re reading – twelve-year-old Theo, seventeen-year-old Theo, twenty four-year-old Theo, even, are being looked back on. The timeline, as it’s chronically presented is immersive and a serious page turner that doesn’t reveal itself as a philosophical exercise until the very end.

When I finished The Goldfinch I couldn’t do anything for the rest of the day. I reread the final chapter twice. In the weeks since I finished it (I’m playing review catch-up right now), I have reread it a couple more times.

It is almost impossible to draw meaning from events as they are happening. It often feels as if life pushes you around and sends you sprawling in whatever direction it wants. The final chapters of The Goldfinch are like the moment when you pick yourself up, pat yourself down, address the damage and then, finally, move forward.

‘And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.’