I know, I promised an Advent Bookfest, and here is a book about mayhem and murder, but I was having an end of year tidy-up in the electronic filing room, when I found a folder full of unpublished and unfinished posts. I’ll start with Donna Tart. How come I haven’t encountered her work before? Where have I been that I missed her? I LOVED the way she writes – subject-wise it’s not necessarily my usual taste, but I couldn’t put this book down. Two nights running I sat in bed reading into the early hours.
The Secret History was erudite, scholarly, steeped in knowledge of the classics and ancient Greek. By the end I had a list of facts to be checked out and books to be discovered or revisited. Homer and Marlow have been unearthed and added to the reading pile (at this rate it will soon be as tall as me) while the wish list bears the cryptic notes ‘Jacobean and Greek tragedy’, ‘more Tartts’ and ‘decent atlas’. This is why I read in such a random fashion: I start one book, and it sends me off in all sorts of other directions (just like The Queen in Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader). Usually I have several books on the go at once, so the ‘must haves’, ‘re-reads’ and ‘find-out-mores’ frequently threaten to overwhelm the house, and I find myself shifting stacks of books from place to place, in a mad variation of musical chairs.
Anyway, enough of that – let’s get back to The Secret History. Initially I found it difficult to buy into the Dionysian frenzy, but the story drew me in, step by step, unfolding a tale of horror, but showing how easy murder can be. Once set on their destructive path Tartt’s elite group of students cannot withdraw, but it is the small irritations presented by their victim that prove the final straw. They are curiously amoral about committing not one, but two murders (the second is a consequence of the first), but the effects of their actions are far reaching, and all are visited by a kind of Nemesis which prevents them reaching their potential.
The climax of the novel is shockingly unexpected, but is the only possible outcome. After that the tale flattens out as the last few pages relate the broken dreams and wasted lives of those who are left.
On the face of it the narrator, Richard, is the outsider, unable to accept his own dull upbringing, desperate to be accepted by his wealthy, glamorous, clever colleagues, and determined to pursue literary beauty ‘at all costs’. But his new found friends are equally anxious to be part of a surrogate family. None are exactly what they seem, and all have been scarred by their childhoods: Bunny, whose banking family leave him perpetually short of cash; Francis, wealthy, gay and promiscuous, at war with his socialite mother and her toy-boy second husband; twins Charles and Camilla, oddly close, brought up by relatives after the death of their parents, and Henry, suave, calm and impossibly intelligent. Central to the action, he remains something of an enigma: I found it difficult to tell if he is saint or sinner, manipulator or victim. Is he what he seems or, like the others, has he created a persona that helps him face the world?
There are echoes of Waugh’s classic Brideshead Revisited, which also revolves around an outsider seduced by the surface glamour of an elite group where the central character has a fatal flaw, and lives fall apart as the real world intrudes on their enchanted circle. Similar territory is explored in Naomi Alderman’s The Lessons and The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, neither of which I enjoyed.