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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 5 August 2019

"The Secret History" by Donna Tartt

This best-selling novel is a cross between The Great Gatsby and Crime and Punishment set in a New England college. In some ways it is linked to The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis.

You are hooked immediately when the Prologue describes the murder of Bunny by a group which includes the narrator (another book with the murder placed right at the start is Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez). The first half of the novel then describes the events leading up to this murder, the second half the consequences.

The story is narrated by Richard, the poor outsider, as Gatsby is narrated by Nick Caraway. He moves to an expensive college on a scholarship. College life which is a whirl of hedonism, featuring alcohol, drugs and a little sex. But Richard is seduced by the mystique of a small elite group of classics students. They have cars, apartments in town, and a big country house. Richard fancies Camilla, twin sister of Charles, but he is most overawed by Henry, the richest member of the group who is a natural linguist. The outsider, also rich with the use of a country estate, is gay Francis. Richard manages to join this group but always feels an outsider. The first person to properly welcome him (although in an attempt to exploit him) is Bunny, the only member of the group to have a nickname, who is destined to become the murder victim.

This tiny class is  taught by Julian Morrow, a teacher whose life has included rubbing shoulders with everyone from George Orwell to royalty. Morrow's teaching style is extraordinary, he hothouses a small elite (perhaps a touch of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie here). Right at the start the teacher, Julian, tells them “It is dangerous to ignore the existence of the irrational. The more cultivated a person is, the more intelligent, the more repressed, then the more he needs some method of channelling the primitive impulses he's worked so hard to subdue.” (C 1) But it is when they try to get fully in touch with their primitive impulses, by recreating a moment from the Bacchae of Euripides, that triggers the disaster that leads to the murder of Bunny.

The book then swings into Crime and Punishment: at one stage, confronting the victim's family, the narrator makes a direct reference, quoting “It was I killed the old pawnbroker woman and her sister Lizaveta with an axe and robbed them.”  (C 7). The guilt and pressure are relentless, at their worst when the group attend the victim's funeral (Henry is even a pall-bearer). In chapter one the teacher, Julian, had discussed with the class the Furies, the Greek goddesses who wreaked vengeance on murderers by driving them mad: “How did they [the Furies] drive people mad? They turned up the volume of the inner monologue, magnified qualities already present to great excess, made people so much themselves that they couldn't stand it." This becomes a prediction as each of the killers is pursued by guilt in their own way: Charles becomes an alcoholic, Henry retreats into obsessive gardening, Francis becomes even more reclusive, Richard drinks and takes drugs.

In many ways this can be seen as a classic Greek tragedy as outlined by Aristotle: young people, fundamentally good but with natural human weaknesses, thirsting for knowledge commit a terrible crime; the rest of the story unfolds with relentless logic; even the reversal at the end is, as Aristotle required, whilst surprising, an inevitable consequence of the characterisations.

It is a brilliant story written superbly. There are moments of stunning writing:

  • Here are three moments when Bunny's body has just been discovered:
    • My hands dangled from the cuffs of my jacket as if they weren't my own.” (C 6) In times of stress a common experience is to discover that your body feels alien; this also references the essentially meat-like quality of a corpse.
    • I never got used to the way the horizon there could just erase itself and leave you marooned, adrift, in an incomplete dreamscape that was like a sketch for the world you knew ... a kind of skewed Heaven where the old landmarks were recognizable but spaced too far apart, and disarranged, and made terrible by the emptiness around them.” (C 6)
    • An old shoe was lying on the asphalt in front of the loading dock, where the ambulance had been only minutes before. It wasn't Bunny’s shoe. I don't know whose it was or how it got there. It was just an old tennis shoe lying on its side. I don't know why I remember that now, or why it made such an impression on me.” These, ending a chapter, reference the fact that discarded clothing can become a poignant symbol of loss (Acts of Undressing). And that last sentence is so Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye).
  • And later, here is a tremendous use of pathetic fallacy in which the metaphors for death and decay come from both within the narrator and from the environment:
    • I felt my heart limping in my chest, and was revolted by it, a pitiful muscle, sick and bloody, pulsing against my ribs. Rain streamed down the windowpanes. The lawn outside was sodden, swampy. When the sun came up, I saw, in the small, cold light of dawn, that the flagstones outside were covered with earthworms: delicate, nasty, hundreds of them, twisting blind and helpless on the rain-dark sheets of slate.” (C 8)

The author repeatedly brings us insights into the human condition:

  • Isn't it also pain that often makes us most aware of self? It is a terrible thing to learn as a child that one is a being separate from all the world, that's no one and no thing hurts along with one’s burned tongues and skinned knees, that one's aches and pains are all one's own.” (C 1)
  • And how can we lose this maddening self, lose it entirely? Love? Yes, but ... the least of us know that love is a cruel and terrible master.” (C 1)
  • I began to realize, with some little horror, that she was nothing more than a lowbrow, pop-psychology version of Sylvia Plath.” (C 2)
  • I've always been drawn to broken, wild terrains. The oddest tongues come from such places, and the strangest mythologies, and the oldest cities, and the most barbarous religions.” (C 4)
  • It's weird. People get upset, all of a sudden they want to listen to old hippie garbage they would never listen to if they were in their right mind. When my cat died I had to go out and borrow all these Simon and Garfunkel records.” (C 5)
  • He was drunk; I could see it in the way he was sitting, not in an inebriated manner per se but as if a different person - a sluggish, sullen one - had occupied his body.” (C 8)

This is a brilliant book full of real psychology, a Greek tragedy for our times, with so many references.

Another book with a college background in which something terrible happens in Shirley Jackson's Hangsaman

August 2019; 600 pages

Other books by this brilliant author include:

  • The Little Friend Loss of innocence among serpents, preachers and drugs dealers in a nightmarish vision of Mississippi small town life
  • The Goldfinch A cosmic battle between Theo who brings death and destruction and his childhood friend Boris who embraces life.

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