Tuesday, 7 October 2014

'Are we an item?'

Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Woah. This was a book that had me sitting staring at its closed back cover for minutes after I'd finished it, just so I could truly take it in. It was a book I seemed to have trouble swallowing. For something so slow paced, I am shocked at how many times I had to ask myself did that really happen? 

This novel, Tartt's first, follows Richard Papen, a new student at the fictional Hampden College in Vermont. He is a Californian transfer, originally studying English Literature, who switches to the exclusive study of Classics when he is enthralled by and later taken under the wing of enigmatic, fatherly professor Julian. In these classes he meets five other students; Bunny, Henry, Francis and twins Camilla and Charles. It is when he is eventually invited into their confidences that he is introduced into a world of debauchery and magic usually left to the Ancient Greek texts that they study, and this is where Tartt's novel really begins to twist and turn, to dually surprise and enthrall the reader. It becomes a tragedy of the highest degree, worthy of the time period with which its characters are so obsessed. 

It opens with a murder. First woah. The first half of the novel is then told in retrospect, so you spend the entire time reading on edge, looking for signs and half hoping that it won't happen. 

The reasons behind the murder. Second woah. Too many woahs. This is shocking and very imaginative on Tartt's part; she perfectly orchestrates both characters and acts to make every event seem plausible even if it is inherently shocking. However the power of Tartt's prose is that you keep turning the page even without a shocking event; there are chunks of pages without any remarkable event, and yet I could not put the book down. 

The characters are despicable at times, and certainly not likeable, and yet again I kept reading, which I think is certainly a good thing. I wanted to learn more about them despite not liking them, and thus saw the world through different viewpoints that I did not even think were possible. Their disparity with modern life is intriguing, and they seem to exist in their own world created of history and books and their own discussions.

The outside world is one that has been tread many times in fiction, that of the East Coast liberal arts college, or just an American college in general, however Tartt manages to make the world interesting and vivid. She perfectly portrays the sense of isolation in the town and the bubble that the main characters live in. 

Tartt's prose is phenomenal, and I think it's the kind of thing that simply can't be taught, which sucks for all of us wannabe writers out there. She spends so much time on her novels (10 years apiece) that of course, her work is very much crafted and edited, yet when you read her work its impossible to think that Tartt has anything other than a beautiful way with words. Her novels don't seem ridiculously edited; they probably take so much time for her to write due to their epic length and depth. 

Overall I did enjoy this book mainly for the prose, and the way that Tartt has obviously thought about every single little detail in the backstory of both her characters and her actual plot. The detail and the control over words is very impressive, as is the page turning yet often absent plot. This is a fantastic novel which I think I can learn a lot from.

What was it about? I found this question tricky, I really had to think hard. I suppose it's about how you deal with change in life; how we retreat from reality when life gets hard or boring and choose to prefer to live in our own heads or worlds of our own making. Or possibly the vacuous nature of modern life? How nothing means anything anymore? I don't know, it's going to take some thinking. 
Would I recommend? Yes, definitely. 

P.S The Little Friend is the only Tartt novel that I have not read and thus it is next on my list. I saw a great copy of it in a used book market the other day but realised that I actually had no way to carry such a chunky book home, which of course disappointed me. Reading this book also has me itching to learn more about Classics, so that's another thing to add to the to-do list. 

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