Wednesday 13 August 2014

REVIEW: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt


Review contains spoilers

Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Literary Fiction

Richard Papen arrives at Hampden College and gets involved with five other students- Bunny, Francis, Henry, Charles and Camilla- who all share a love for Greek Classics. Attending all classes under the eccentric Julian, they are segregated from the rest of the college students.
All with an air of secrecy, Richard tries his best to infiltrate the tight circle of friends, and gradually uncovers the dangers of which the group are involved in. After taking part in an ancient ritual, the group murder a farmhand and all decide to keep it quiet. When one member of the group is found to be less trusting, they are forced to get rid of him. Following his death, the group spiral out of control as a murder mystery unfolds and more drama ensues.

My Thoughts:
Where to begin with this book... I think this is one of those books that you either "get" or don't... and unfortunately I don't. 
I had been warned that this takes a good while to get into but was worth the read, so I persevered and really wanted to like it... but being honest I didn't enjoy reading it. 
My reasons for not enjoying/liking this novel are as follows;
  1. Richard; there was absolutely no traits to prove his gender, occasionally he mentioned his love/affection for a character but their gender didn't matter and his lack of credibility just set the novel on a downward slope from the start. He was as dull as cardboard; he seemed to never have an opinion and if he did he never stood up for what it was. There was a scene where he gets with a girl at a party- he apparently was glad of this hook-up but did we get any emotion from him? No.
  2. Characters; the rest of the group also lacked credibility. I made exceptions and allowances for their personalities to be different, as I would for characters in any novel. But after committing murder - twice - Tartt tried to portray a sense of remorse that just seemed forced and fake. Francis Henry Francis Henry- what on Earth was going on between those two and which was which? And the twins? Character building was definitely not on Tartt's list of things to include in this. Many things were suggested and hinted at, but rarely confirmed or elaborated. Now, I know the whole "show not tell" theory in writing, but whilst at times the hinting was sufficient, at some points a little bit of solid evidence would have been appreciated.
  3. Writing; In amongst a lot of pointless anecdotes, there lies a fairly decent murder story- this is mainly where the two stars come from. The first killing happened just short of a third the way through, so naturally this caught my interest. The second murdering occurs half way through and there is a fair amount of suspense built as we know the murder is about to happen but we aren't sure how it will pan out. The whole rest of the book- 270 pages or so - is simply the rest of them fluttering around drunk and high, trying to avoid the police and letting their paranoia and anxiety control their actions and they gradually spiral out of control. I felt there was too much written about pointless scenes and not enough of vital ones. eg, there was a section where one of them was telling Richard how he nearly caught them "so many times" from coming home from the woods, when they hid behind the curtain etc, this should have been written into the story beforehand!!! ie, Richard should have noticed something like "when I went down to the fridge I heard some noises in the hall but no one was there and I returned to bed" etc... this lack of foreshadowing just felt like Tartt wrote the novel as she went with no clue where it was going.
  4. Julian; Richard (and seemingly the others) idolized this man. I did not nor did I understand his great importance, there needed to be more about him to show the reader his greatness. Julian was one character I wanted to read more about, I wanted to know what was so intriguing and why he selected his students so carefully and such, but nope- we weren't privy to an insight into Julian's psyche.
  5. The story; unfortunately the whole plot just fell apart for me. This is deemed as a great murder mystery type novel but that's hardly so. The first telling of the drunken acts and behaviour of the characters were enough, and I did not need to read hundreds of pages of the same thing with different paranoia in a different setting to understand their affliction with substance abuse. Hooray for them being young and daring.

Overall, did not enjoy this book. It probably just wasn't for me and I can recognise the talent of Tartt but it often felt like she was trying to hard to show off her writing skills. The constant forced language use was a turn off; it would have done her no harm to once in a while just write a sentence simply. I think you will either love or hate this and can't recommend it solely to a certain group as I believe it to be an individual preference.