I’m not sure what to call this book. Maybe a psychological thriller covers it best, but in truth this is not a book that is easily put in a category. It’s about a murder. On the very first page, we learn who the victim is, who the murderers are (the narrator amongst them) and that they got away with it. The mystery that remains is: why and how could it happen?
Richard Papen tells the story – the only story he will ever be able to tell, as he says it – of some dramatic events he was involved in when he was in college in the eighties. They all pivot around one terrible moment, when on a spring afternoon a group of students, including Richard, waited for one of their best friends in a remote spot and pushed him into a ravine. The first half of the book is a recounting of the events that lead up to the murder, the second half describes the aftermath.
Richard is a rather nondescript young man from a small suburb in California with a strong wish to better his fortune. After attending two years of college in his hometown, against the wishes of his parents, who want him to come work for his father, he transfers to a small liberal arts college in Vermont. It is as far away from the West Coast as he can manage without leaving the country. He loves his new surroundings: the relatively old buildings of Hampden College, the lush landscape, the mountains and the seasons. The most fascinating thing in the whole college is a group of five students who study Ancient Greek with an eccentric old teacher called Julian Morrow. They are Henry Winter, a tall and serious intellectual, Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran, a cheery, all-American boy, Charles and Camilla Macaulay, stylish, orphaned twins, and Francis Abernathy, a slender, elegant young man with flaming red hair.
They seem nothing alike, yet they form a clique and hardly interact with other people on campus. Richard, who has taken a few years of Greek before, is determined to get into Julian Morrow’s exclusive little class. When he does, he slowly starts to be accepted by the group he admires so much, even though, as it turns out later, they don’t let him share in everything they do. After most of the secrets are eventually uncovered, after several months, Richard can’t imagine his life without his new friends anymore. He hardly hesitates in joining Henry, Charles, Camilla and Francis on the day they wait for Bunny to take one of his hikes and, surprising him in a clearing, push him over the edge of the ravine.
Although it’s April, a heavy snowfall covers Vermont that night. Instead of people finding Bunny’s body immediately, as was the plan, it takes two weeks before the snow has melted and he is found by a girl walking her dog. In the meantime the police and the FBI have been involved, the college is in uproar, search parties scour the woods from dawn to dusk, the entire Corcoran family has flown in from all over the country and the media have covered every possible link to the disappearance of young Edmund Corcoran. The group of friends has to pretend to be as baffled as everyone else. They join the search parties and mourn for Bunny with his large family at his funeral. Meanwhile, the effect of what they have done pulls them apart and slowly eats away at every one of them. They retreat into silence, drink, drugs, panic attacks and mutual suspicion until the built up tension finally leads to a new blow-up. It turns out that, although the police never discovered the truth about Bunny’s death, they didn’t really ‘get away with it’ after all. What remains of their lives will forever be about that tragedy in April.
At first glance, the story seems to play out along the somewhat cliché lines of rich, eccentric, untouchable boys and girls who drink too much and have no sense of responsibility, doing outrageous things while quoting from literature and getting away with it because they are rich, eccentric and untouchable. Literature is filled with characters like these, but Donna Tartt really adds something to the trope. The boys and girl in The Secret History are young and intelligent and imaginative, a dangerous combination of qualities. They are dreamers who essentially believe themselves to be immortal, making them vulnerable and callous at the same time. I would call them pretentious, and maybe they are, but their search for beauty and some higher way of living is quite earnest. They spend happy weekends in the enormous house of Francis’ aunt, Sunday evenings having dinner in Charles’ and Camilla’s apartment and hours of stimulating conversation around the table in Julian’s office. That happiness slips away, at first almost unnoticeably, after a serious error in judgement and the agonizing months that follow it. So well does Tartt describe the group’s obsessions and fears, that a frightening voice enters your mind saying ‘well, Bunny has to die, because it would break my heart if he didn’t and the perfection got spoiled’. Engrossed in the book, I told Thura: “I hate that boy. I’m ready for him to be murdered.”
“Well, you’re not a very good Christian,” she said and she was right. However, it is important to note that the story is not a celebration of moral ambiguity (which I dislike) but a warning against it.
I started this book gullibly believing everything was just as Richard described it. But what you must realise is that a first person narrator is always biased. Even though Richard sounds honest and smart, even though he analyses his own actions and those of others critically, part of him tries to make the murder sound acceptable. Once you realise this, you start to wonder why Richard writes it all down. The whole thing starts to sound like a subtle plea from a burdened conscience or, perhaps, a coping mechanism.
The clearest example of Richard’s bias is his description of the Classics teacher, Julian. He admires him greatly, loves him even, and the others do as well. Julian is apparently a charming, warm person of great intellect. He rejects modernity and teaches his six pupils to be great classical thinkers, unimpeded by mediocrity and arbitrary social rules of the twentieth century. He might be a little manipulative, Richard admits near the end of the book. People have said of him that he was actually cold, selfish and a coward – but Richard still loves him. For me, reading between the lines, Julian is a menacing presence in the background of the entire book. He seems to choose his students because they are misfits, unrooted and insecure. He demands to teach them all their subjects and be their mentor as well, gaining full control over their development. He tells bewitching stories about beauty and life and the sublime. And when it really comes to it, he drops his pupils like stones. He is like a puppet master, feigning naivety but knowing damn well that he lives out his amoral ideals through his students. I think that a good part of the disastrous events in the story can be attributed to Julian’s influence, but we’ll never be sure. Donna Tartt only hints at his power through the distorted lens of Richard’s account.
There was one detail in the story that irked me a little. Julian apparently has quite a glamorous past and at some point Richard learns that he knows the family of the ‘Shah of Isram’, who have been exiled and most of them murdered after a revolution in Isram. This fictional country is probably modelled on Iran and the 1979 revolution, but it feels weird to have such an obviously fictional detail as a non-existent country in an otherwise very realistically written book. Of course, Hampden College is fictional as well, but it’s quite easy to imagine that a small college you’ve never heard of exists in some remote place. Moreover, Hampden plays a very important role in the story while the story of Isram is mentioned only once or twice and has nothing to do with the plot. In one of the last chapters another fictional country is mentioned, in Africa this time. I can’t remember the context, but again, it struck me as a discord. What I am trying to say so very clumsily is that within the fictional universe of The Secret History, this detail seems off.
Apart from that, I have nothing but praise for this novel (Tartt’s first, if you can believe it). It’s original and dark, with a wonderful writing style and not overly sentimental or theatrical. The characters are mostly terrible people in some way, even the minor characters, and still you sympathise. Although I would not recommend committing or covering up a murder, storywise I appreciate the characters’ dedication to the chosen course. They feel terrible for killing Bunny, but realise they need to stick to their plan once they have decided to not tell the police. Characters in books and films who talk about feeling guilty all the time but are too cowardly to give themselves up are usually tiresome, in my opinion. This kind of originality is what makes this story so compelling. I can imagine that some people feel the story is unnecessarily long or slow and it might not suit everyone. I suspect that to enjoy it, you must share to some extent in what Richard calls his fatal flaw: ‘a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs’. If you recognise that stupid longing for beauty in everything, you will love this book.
George Gently Award for murder and the sheer amount of cigarettes smoked
Donna Tartt, The Secret History (New York, 1992)