Mini Classic Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

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Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last—inexorably—into evil.

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Some things are too terrible to grasp at once. Other things – naked, sputtering, indelible in their horror – are too terrible to really grasp ever at all. It is only later, in solitude, in memory that the realisation dawns: when the ashes are cold; when the mourners have departed; when one looks around and finds oneself – quite to one’s surprise – in an entirely different world.

I binge-read this book during a four-day frenzy and it was probably one of my greatest reading experiences to date. This entire book is so immersive and intense and just plain crazy — reading it felt like I was in a fever dream, but one I never wanted to end.

The novel follows Richard Papen as he attends Hampden College and falls in with the kids in the elusive Classics class, led by the eccentric professor, Julian Morrow. As Richard befriends the clique of sophisticated yet indistinct rich kids, he finds himself in the middle of a horrific secret that the group will do anything to protect.

One of the best elements of this story is Tartt’s amazing and engrossing writing, that drew me so deep in the story that I had read 200 pages without realising and without moving. It’s like I could physically see the beautiful campus of Hampden College and the freezing attic Richard almost dies in because he’s too proud to ask for help. Just so stunning and visceral.

But of course this book would be nothing without the eclectic and phenomenal cast. Richard is a bit of an enigma — he’s the main character but doesn’t have much of a personality; but that’s because so much of the book focuses on him becoming obsessed with his friends and seeing the world from their eyes. Then we have Camilla and Charles, twins who Richard forms an intense relationship with. Richard falls deeply for Camilla, but Camilla is used to stringing along admirers for years — and her brother, Charles, is always deep in his cups and high on whatever drug he can get his hands on. There’s also Francis, who is highly fragile and gay and who Richard can’t stay away from although he doesn’t know why — however, readers are quickly able to pick up on. Then there’s Bunny, a pretty horrible young man who everyone seems to be sick of but hangs around them anyway. And finally, we come to Henry Winter, the enigmatic leader of the clique who seems to draw the others to him, like a poisonous flower. Henry is an actual genius who seems the world only in black and white and who is incredibly staunch in his beliefs. I think my favourite scene of his is when he discovers that in 1969, humans had travelled to the moon — he genuinely had no idea this had occurred because it’s not something he ever needed to study.

The book focuses greatly on the intense, toxic converging relationships between these six people and how they are all tested by their corrupt professor, Julian Morrow. Julian, like Henry, is focused completely on Ancient Greece and myths and legends and aesthetics of the past — he has no time for the modern world or their rules. And so he pushes his students further and further, until they’ve gone too far.

The Secret History is unlike any other book I’ve read and sparked off my new love for dark academia books. I’ve quite a few dark academia books since The Secret History and I can see the influence of this book plain as day.

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