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Donna Tartt
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The Secret History
paperback
640 pages
As I was reading this novell I slowly realized that I had read it once before. Such is the impression this tale of doom and gloom has that decades later I could still remember it. Not well enough not to enjoy reading it again though!

The Secret History tells the story of the classical Greek class, six students and their teacher, at a liberal arts college on the east coast of the United States, through the reminiscences of one of those students. These seven characters dominate the novel completely, standing forth with the clarity and intensity of actors in a Greek tragedy. The usual events of college life - sex, drugs and rock 'n roll.

A young Californian student Richard Papen frustrated at home gets a scholarship to study at Hampden College in an isolated part of Vermont in the North East of the US. Having already an interest in languages, especially Greek, he decides to enlist for a classics course run by the famous but rather mysterious academic Julian Morrow. This is not as easy as he at first imagines since Morrow a wealthy and independently financed tutor doesn't accept just anyone in his class, he always has the final decision.

Rebuffed at first Richard by accident befriends the other students in the very selective group. They unlike Richard are all well off but seem to be of their own accord isolated from the rest of the students on campus. They feel superior and are regarded with suspicion by the other students. In order to emphasise their special status they wear old-fashioned clothes and are to varying degrees quite obsessive about ancient Greek culture and rituals. The self appointed leader' of the group is Henry, calculating and unemotional, he is also Julian Morrow's favourite. Francis is the complete opposite, a spoilt rich kid who is apt to fly of the handle at any moment, The Twins' Camilla and Charles are quiet and very friendly towards Richard and seem to have a very close bond with each other. Finally making up the group is Bunny in many ways the odd one out. Academically he is inferior to the rest of the group and he's also the only one to have friends outside of their clique. Richard ashamed of his poor background tries desperately to fit in and eventually the group accepts him although he always has the feeling that they have something, a secret that they are keeping from him. After a series of tragic events a terrible crime takes place and their world begins to crumble around them.

Donna Tartt embarked on a very difficult task when she wrote this novel since this story deals essentially with the nature of crime, guilt and retribution many other stories deal with these same themes but the one that comes quickest to mind is Dostoyevsky's brilliant Crime and Punishment'. Is it fair to compare the two books, does she really mean for them to be compared? I wasn't sure until half way through the book one of the characters quotes a line from Crime and Punishment' thus we can safely assume that the similarities between the two stories are more than mere coincidence. The question is as a study of the psychology of crime and an examination of guilt and remorse how does it compare?Well it's not in the same league.

Donna Tartt manages initially to successfully draw you in to the story, you quickly begin to understand the characters and the interplay between them is very well observed and outlined. Although in effect we know what is going to happen we are intrigued to know why it has happened and this part of the novel is an addictive read. We then come to the murder and soon after the other characters begin to go through a myriad of emotions, fear, guilt and paranoid illusions. A lot of drugs are taken and lots of alcohol is consumed, but not much else happens and this seems to go on for about 200 pages!

I can understand that the exploration of the characters feelings and actions after the crime are essential to the story but the author goes about the task in a narrative vacuum. To go back to a comparison with Crime and Punishment', in that novel the central character spends most of the book torturing himself over the terrible crime he has committed BUT around him there are complex subplots developing, we have blackmail, a love interest, tragedy strikes other characters. The key elements of the main characters guilt are examined partly through his relationship to other characters and the events that are going on around him. This is essential to keep the story vibrant and to keep the reader enthralled by the hero's plight. This is what Donna Tartt fails to do. She does try to introduce some external plot devices, there is an hint of a love story developing, there is a racist element to one of the characters that takes centre stage for a while there are two very clich FBI agents who investigate the crime and that might begin to interact with Richard his friensds in a similar way that the investigator Porfiry Petrovich does with Raskalnikov in Dostoyevsky's masterpiece. Unfortunately all these different threads fail in keeping the reader interested, like a dying fish out of water writhing this way and that, gasping for air the plot of The Secret History' equally is thrashing about from one underdeveloped subplot to another desperately trying to find some cohesiveness, trying to alleviate the boredom of so much futile introspection by the main characters.

Eventually something does happen towards the end of the book that changes the nature of the story once again and for the last third of the story we are again taken up and led speedily through to a thrilling finale. Tartt also includes a prologue that allows us to discover the fate of some of the other main characters that seem to have been jettisoned in the course of the story.

It seems to me that authors of modern fiction these days believe that for a publisher or critic to take a novel seriously as a work of literature as opposed to just pulp fiction then the novel has to be a long, a real door stop'. Consequently we have many good stories becoming bloated with unnecessary narrative. It took Dostoyevsky just over 400 pages to give us an in depth exploration of guilt and at the same time keep us entertained and totally absorbed by the story. Ms Tartt takes up over 600 pages and doesn't come close to the insights or the narrative thrills of Crime and Punishment'.

Still enjoyable, so recommended!
8/10
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