By Loula Bounouar
“But how,” said Charles, who was close to tears, “how can you possibly justify cold-blooded murder?’
Henry lit a cigarette. “I prefer to think of it,” he had said, “as redistribution of matter.”
What would have happened if The Great Gatsby and American Psycho were merged and took place in a College in Vermont in the 1980s? With a first chapter about the yet incomprehensible murder of one of the protagonists, The Secret History by Donna Tartt paints the perfect picture of destruction of the self and of others for the sake of the intellect. Bunny Corcoran, a young student in Bennington College, was pushed in a ravine by his best friends, and died. The first chapter of the book narrates the scene between the murderers. Was Bunny really dead? How long is it going to take for someone to find him? From that point on, the book describes elegantly and with a lot of precision the psychological build up to the tragic event and the consequences that it has on the mental and physical health of the group of students that killed Bunny. The reader is transported, like the title indicates, into a secret group and almost feels honoured to be reading the book and learning about “the secret history”, as if no one else has read the book before.
The story is told through the eyes of Richard Papen, a 20 years old student from a small town in California, narrating “the only story he will ever be able to tell.” He wants to get away from his uneducated, blue-collared family to major in classics in a university in Vermont – in which he gets in thanks to a scholarship – where he creates a new identity for himself. One of the only courses that he’s enjoyed in his previous education was the study of ancient Greek, so he decides to join the class in his new university. However, the class is taught by a Gatsbyesque teacher, Julian Morrow, rumoured to have been friends with Ezra Pound and T.S Eliot, that personally selects five students to take part in his course. This exclusive group of students is completely separated from the rest of the school and they live in their own private, elitist social sphere. Richard looks at the group with envy and curiosity. Nevertheless, Richard manages to get in the elitist circle. There, he meets Henry Winter, a Sherlock Holmes-type obnoxious student. He is the untold leader of the group, he is manipulative, distant and as wealthy as he is smart. He is passionate about Plato and Homer and spends most of his time studying and translating books in different languages. Then there are the twins, Camilla and Charles Macaulay. They are charming but have an unsettling relationship with each other. The next student from the exclusive class is Francis Abernathy, a rich kid from New York, distant at first, who turns out to be very likeable. His aunt owns a place in the countryside that the group of students takes as a sanctuary. And then finally, there is Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran, the more approachable, less serious member of the group, he introduces Richard to the group and is killed by his friends at the beginning of the book.
When you start the book, it is crystal clear that the group of friends, Richard included, killed Bunny (I am not spoiling anything here) but the motives are to be discovered throughout the book. Thanks to Tartt’s analysis of beauty and aesthetics that she discusses successfully in the novel through the interpretation of Greek and Roman literature, she creates a depiction of the appeal that the classic literature has over these young people. However, this search for answers, that Richard gets dragged into, leads them straight to hell and to a nightmare they could not have imagined, in which they end up destroying themselves and each other. The book is like a modern Greek Tragedy, it is macabre and pleasing at the same time. With a lot of references to writers like Edgar Allen Poe but also to Greek tragedies like Bacchae. These students want to unravel the mysteries of the intellect and see how far they can go, it will eventually lead them onto a path of destruction. The most interesting part of this book is not so much what led to the murder – even though we obviously want to know that – the best part is how it affects the small group of friends. How their close relation will be affected, but mostly how their lives will be touched forever, without surprise, after murdering one of theirs.
Donna Tartt created unique and realistic characters – although some might argue the contrary – and she described them so naturally that even though you know that they have committed a murder, you can only empathize for them, and especially for Richard. Overall, the book is a great contrast between beauty and reality. Tartt dated Bret Easton Ellis (she even dedicated this novel to him), author of Less than Zero and American Psycho, and the book has this undeniable B.E Ellis vibe to it. Through the overconsumption of alcohol, cigarettes, narcotics and prescription drugs, but also because of the overall setting and relations between the protagonists. Indeed, the relationships that link the students with each other and with Julian are blurry and often unhealthy. Also, Henry Winter, with his Sherlock Holmes way of acting and his psychopathic tendencies reminds me a lot of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho.
Donna Tartt truly wrote a masterpiece at only 28 years of age, it has often been considered as one of the best debut novel of the decade and received gratifying critics by significant newspapers such as The Times who called it “Haunting, compelling and brilliant” or The Spectator who defined it as “a marvellous debut” and I would have to agree with them. Indeed, saying that I liked this book would be an understatement, the praise it has gotten is completely legitimate. I have not fallen in love with a book like that in a long time. And apparently, The Secret History is not her only work of literature that pleased the crowd. Her novel The Goldfinch, published in 2013, won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2014. This was a promising discovery and I cannot wait to read her two other novels in the hope that I will enjoy them as much as I enjoyed The Secret History. If you enjoyed Less Than Zero and American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis and if you enjoy classics or books with a macabre vibe to them in general, you will not regret picking up this book.