Review: The Secret History

“It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.”

If I could read only one book for the rest of my life, Secret History would be a very strong contender. Ever since I read it for the first time (almost two years back) I can’t get it out of my head. Bits and pieces, random quotes and thoughts about it pop up daily, classifying it as a book that you are bound to love and get sucked into.

I’ve said this one before – maybe not here, but I definitely have said it – that groups of misfits that find a family in each other are my absolute weakness. Six of Crows, Les Miserables, even The Raven Circle are books that will stay with me forever, precisely because they fall into my favourite trope: outcasts and misfits, people real and broken, finding their place with each other. And The Secret History is perhaps the greatest example of it; a group of morally grey anti-heroes (or even straight-up villains), a group of people who should be despised and hated, crawls its way into your heart and haunts your soul forever.

The story begins in medias res, in the middle and the peak of the occurring events. Our narrator and protagonist Richard Papen then dives into the past, taking the story from the very beginning. A murder occurs and from the very first moment you know who dies and who killed them; this book is not about solving a mystery case. In fact, it’s so heavily character – based, that its plot presents almost no significant value. Its plot does not justify a book of this length; but the growth and the thorough study and analysis of its characters calls for a book of almost 700 pages. And, trust me, by the end of the book, you will be so invested in the characters, and their flaws and their fuckups and everything surrounding them, that you’ll wish this book was twice as long.

In a very interesting and unique twist of the usual way of story-telling, Tartt uses her protagonist – Richard – mostly as a narrator. Richard is not a man of actions; his are not the actions that define and shape the path this book follows. Henry and the rest of the characters take the lead and Richard, almost gladly, stays behind, observing and analysing them, becoming equal parts reader and a character of the story. He does not possess any personality traits that make him stand out, he pales in comparison to characters such as Henry or Francis’. His “absence” allows the other – admittedly far more interesting – characters to grow and develop, to make mistakes and to materialize in front of the readers’ eyes. Honestly, this narrative works so well with this story I could not imagine it any other way.

The book is very atmospheric , very unique in the vibe that it sets and the pace that it follows. It’s neither fast-paced, nor action packed. But this doesn’t make it any less brilliant. Filled with Ancient Greek and Latin quotes, ideas, ways of thinking and living, it is a read very close to my personal interests and studies, one that I believe will be interesting and beneficial to everyone.

The Secret History has two strengths that make it stand out as a novel. One, Tartt’s writing, an almost lyrical flow that resembles those of Dickens or Woolf, of a bygone era in literature. Her writing, her craftmanship, separate her from the other authors of this century and era, making her a remarkable and, in my opinion, one of the very best authors of her time. Two, its charismatic, deeply flawed characters, characters whose actions and motives you can not predict, characters experiencing wild and unrelatable things, whose deep characterization still somehow manages to make them loved and relatable.

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