BOOK REVIEW: THE SECRET HISTORY- by Donna Tarrt

The Plot: Richard Papen is a poor, detached young man with a poor relationship with his parents. When he finally gets the chance to escape his dull life by accepting a place at a liberal arts college to study English while claiming financial aid, he comes across a group of aloof and intriguing young classics student, taught by a mysterious classics teacher, professor Julian Morrow. When Richard gets the chance to join this elite group- under the condition that he takes class with no other teachers. Richard, iscolate and desperate for approval, assents and is allowed into the tantalizing world of the classics students. But, there’s more than what meets the eye, and soon things spin out of control and he enters a web of secrets that eventually lead to murder…

Review: I would like to begin this review by saying ‘buy this book.’ Seriously, it was 500 pages and raced along like a 200 page novel, with so much talk of the classics but not a wasted line or breath. This is one of those books that not only was I sad when it ended, but I couldn’t read another book because I wasn’t ready to let it go. This is a brilliant novel, and one that goes down as one of my favorites of all time. There’s no lagging, no slow points, no parts that bored me, and even parts that seem inconsequential are there to set up later moments. The whole thing is supurbly written and incorporates

 

As the novel is entirely character driven, the best way to discuss this book is by looking at some of its fantastic characters…

Richard Papen

This is the reason that this novel is given out as part of University studies: Richard’s unique narration. He is both the novel’s biggest strength and the biggest frustration. He is the text book example of the Peripherial Narrator, always just outside of the main group , desperate to become part of this mysterious, elusive clique that is scorned by the more well adapted members of the liberal arts college.

Because of his outsider status, he’s never really the central player (that would be Henry) and reading this always feels like you’re reading the story through the crack in the door. This can be frustrating, because all the ‘secrets’-especially the triggering secret- are extremely fascinating. Not to mention Richard is extremely passive, cold, detached and hard to sympathise or empathise with.

Yet his narration is narration is the novel’s brilliance. So often when you read a novel from the first person POV, the main character’s point of view is clearly the authors and is presented as the objective, unquestioned truth. But not here.Richard misses what’s right in front of him, clouds both Julian and Henry in the fog of his own awe, Camilla in the fog of his infatuation, and his judgement is often clouded in the fog of copious amounts of drugs and alcohol (of which there is a lot of , since this is set in the 80s). That is, until eventually its broken through and the cold light of reality sets in.

Henry Winter

Arguably, Henry is the real central character of this novel: he is the one with the most emotional investment with Bunny, the one Camilla is closest to, Julian’s favourite, the group leader. He is everything that the narrator wants to be (although this is never explicitly stated, but can be gleaned from the fact that Richard focuses on him more than any other character.

But like with Camilla, for most of the novel we can only see him through the rose tinted lense of Richard’s admiration. It’s only after his character is interrogated that we can truly see his flaws… that were there to see throughout the novel, but thanks to Richard’s awe he was never able to see it… and neither were we.

Edward ‘Bunny’ Corcoran

Bunny, for all his appearance of amiable, callous stability, was actually a wildly erratic character. There were any number of reasons for this, but primary among them was his complete inability to think about anything before he did it.

Edmund ‘Bunny Corcoran, our central murder victim (as revealed by the prologue) and one of the two major driving forces of the story. Because we’re told right from the start that he’s going to die, the suspense lies not whether he’ll die , but how, when and why and whether our leads will get away with it, and what

Much of the first half of the book can be described as a character study of Bunny and his rapidly deteriorating psyche. And he is a big, unique character. Brash and irritating, everything about him is well sketched from his affable ‘old boy’ way of talking, his privilidged delusions of grandeur, his way of ‘slapping people on the back, eating twinkies and Hohos in the reading room of the library and dropping crumbs all down in the bindings of his Greek books.’

Camilla and Charles Macaulay

“Things would have been terribly strange and unbalanced without her. She was the Queen who finished out the suit of dark Jacks, dark King, and Joker.”

Camilla represents an excellent use of the unreliable narrator: she flits in and out of the novel like a beautiful mirage, shrouded so heavily in the fog of the male gaze that it’s impossible to ascertain her true personality, except she’s somewhat too tired and broken to be the princess that Richard wants to make her. Every time she’s introduced the narrator will fall into accolades, and muse about her unknowability in a very self aware, unreliable narrator that only a woman could write.

Charles is a loose cannon. He’s seemingly the more affable, relatable one (though unlike with the others, I get this mainly from what I’m told about him rather than what is seen).

Francis Abernathy:

Francis is the closeted gay guy, everyone’s college experiment, and like Camilla, is not as central as Henry or Bunny, but has a definite presence. Towards the second half he serves as Richard’s sort of confidant and side kick. He has secrets of his own, which like this novel is kind of sad. I raise my eyebrows at the fact it’s the token gay who’s the neurotic weak one who is there to make Richard of all people

The whole story does play out like a massive Greek tragedy. Because we are told right from the beginning that there’s going to

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