O, have I had a treat this last week! I have been eagerly waiting to re-read this fantastic debut novel from Donna Tartt for a long, long time, but have only recently had a copy to hand (as our old copy was out on loan).

I first read this novel back in 2004, when my then girlfriend (now wonderful wife) bought me a copy, insisting that I absolutely must read it. I remember that it was around Easter time and I had a few days off work and that I got so into the book that I read all 629 pages of it in three days. In fact, I finished it whilst at Heathrow airport waiting for a flight out to Spain, and it was probably a good job I did finish it when I did or I may have been so engrossed that I could have missed my flight. Anyway, it really is that gripping and that good. Eight years on, and my life is rather busier these days, but I still romped through the book, staying up pretty late each night reading on and on until I eventually forced myself to go to bed and get some sleep.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

So what is it all about? Well, on the surface, it is the tale of a close-knit group of friends at an elite east-coast US university whose intelligence and inquisitiveness lead them down an ever darkening path from which they struggle to return. It is a story about the desire for control and the limits of freedom; it is about exploration and passion; and it is about the arrogance and vanity of youth. It is also a modern form of Greek tragedy (although you’d have to read it to understand what I mean).

One thing I had remembered from reading the book previously, was that it had a two-page Prologue, which to my mind, must rank up there as one of the most compelling openings in all of fiction. Here are the first couple of paragraphs:

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. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history – state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston.

It is difficult to believe that Henry’s modest plan could have worked so well despite these unforeseen events. We hadn’t intended to hide the body where it couldn’t be found. In fact, we hadn’t hidden it at all but had simply left it where it fell in hopes that some luckless passer-by would stumble over it before anyone even noticed he was missing. This was a tale that told itself simply and well: the loose rocks, the body at the bottom of the ravine with a clean break in the neck, and the muddy skidmarks of dug-in heels pointing the way down; a hiking accident, no more, no less, and it might have been left at that, at quiet tears and a small funeral, had it not been for the snow that fell that night; it covered him without a trace, and ten days later, when the thaw finally came, the state troopers and the FBI and the searchers from the town all saw that they had been walking back and forth over his body until the snow above it was so packed down like ice.

And so we learn, right from the outset, of Bunny’s death at the hands of his so-called friends, and the rest of the novel is a kind of inverted murder mystery from there on.

Our narrator throughout is Richard Papen, who is re-telling the events from a point several years on. Unlike the other five classics students, Richard is not from a privileged background, and is initially enraptured by the style and sophistication of the other five, whose company and lifestyle he covets. Over the course of his first term he manages to join their elite clique, which involves agreeing to study solely under the tutelage of the eccentric classics master, Julian Morrow. As any ties he once had with anyone else at college fade, Richard soon finds himself living entirely within a heady microcosm peopled exclusively by Charles and Camilla, Francis, Bunny, and the charismatic Henry.

Initially Richard delights in his new-found friendships and the exciting lives that they all lead, and in the escape from his pedestrian past, however as the weeks roll on, the idyll starts to sour and relationships become increasingly strained towards the end of term. Richard naively hopes things will sort themselves out in the New Year, however the six seem to have started a journey that it is now impossible to depart from, and at times they almost seem to resign themselves to the tragedy that they all half-know awaits them.

If you are looking for a well-written, intelligent, original thriller, then look no further: The Secret History is a masterful novel and a great read.

Finally, some trivia: From 1982-86 Donna Tartt attended Bennington College, a liberal arts college in Vermont (an establishment not dissimilar to the fictional Hampden college from the novel), where she met and befriended fellow student Bret Easton Ellis, to whom the novel is dedicated.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: The Little Friend which is also by Donna Tartt, or The Magus or The Collector, both of which are by John Fowles.