the secret history // donna tartt

Book Reviews / Sunday, June 17th, 2018

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. […] and though once I thought I had left that ravine forever on an April afternoon long ago, now I am not so sure. Now the searchers have departed, and life has grown quiet around me, I have come to realize that while for years I might have imagined myself to be somewhere else, in reality I have been there all the time: up at the top by the muddy wheel-ruts in the new grass, where the sky is dark over the shivering apple blossoms and the first chill of the snow that will fall that night is already in the air. […]

I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”


Thus starts this heavy read, and as always Donna Tartt has a way of pulling you in so quickly, in the blink of an eye you’re gone and so invested in these characters, you can’t stop reading about them. Even though – and that’s the big, unbelievable stunt she pulls off – even though you really don’t like any of them, at all.

Except that you do. Somehow. In a weird, twisted way.

The novel is set in a beautiful, somewhat hazy landscape; Hampden College, an autumn in Vermont, bonfires, stinging cold, remote. Donna Tartt makes you think there is no place more beautiful, more serene than this very speck of earth and then she throws you, mercilessly, into the mess they made when they killed one of their own.

“They” are a group of friends haphazardly thrown together by one thing in common: their enigmatic and charming professor for ancient Greek and Latin, Julian Morrow. They are entirely secluded from the rest of their college, by his demand all their classes are with him.

Slowly but surely, the narrator Richard, and with him, you as a reader, get to like and loathe each of his new fellow students; Henry, Francis, Bunny and the twins Charles and Camilla, in turn. All of them are fatally flawed for some reason or other (arrogance, ignorance, selfishness, cruelty – take your pick). But then Tartt shows you a flash of a smile of one of them, or a gesture of friendship, or a noble deed, or a vulnerable side and just like that, you are miraculously reconciled with their egotistical selves. She makes you see why Richard can not turn away from these scheming people, even though his life would have been a thousand times easier for it.

Because from harmless play and poking fun starts to spin something more; resentment and anger and hurt, and then finally, something so cruel there are no words for it.

And yet Donna Tartt found them. And she wrote them beautifully.

With her way of sketching the feeling of a room, the tornness of a person, the sky on a dreadful day in April with just a few bold strokes, she takes you into the heart of this story without hesitation and apology. She leads so assuredly through the bleak world she conjured up; of privileges and deep, deep sadness and friendships that are more and less than you think they are, it doesn’t even matter that the plot is revealed in the first few sentences. Because with her, you don’t want to know what happened; you want to know why. And she delivers big time in anatomizing the human mind, how we can do terrible things and how we cope with them and how in the end, none of us come out unscathed, even though we always thought we were invincible.


And then, with a slap, the ending of the story is just as disappointing as all of its measly, pitiful characters are – in their life choices and the stories they choose to tell. Or not.

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