The Secret History

I’m doing acouple days’ work for the National Library and how bizarre it feels. So far, even though I’m back in Wellington in the same flat, I’ve managed to avoid feeling like I have come full circle and ended up exactly where I started. Coming here, however, writing emails to old colleagues and publishing the staff newsletter… well, there’s no mistaking I’m home! At least I know that the madness I encounter here is temporary. Monday next I start as Communications Advisor at Land Information New Zealand, and I’m super excited. They have a huge, energetic team that I’m going to enjoy being a part of.

I’ve read the first novel for my new book club and it was certainly a surprise. Toted as a murder mystery, The Secret History by Donna Tartt is really no such thing. We know from the first page who dies, and who did it, which takes all the mystery out of it. I did not have a passionate reaction to the book, which is at odds both with my personality and with the themes of the story itself.

The main characters are Classics students at an elite university in the Vermont mountains. Working with an enigmatic tutor, they learn Ancient Greek language and philosophies. Amongst the rich kids, Richard Papen our narrator is the odd one out out, a scholarship student from California. He is, as he describes, ultimately an observer who has little effect on other characters’ actions and the final outcome. He watches with almost sexual fascination as his idols descend into Dyonesian madness.  Inevitably, they become the tragedies they study. This could almost be a textbook for SADD: “Kids, Drinks and Drugs lead to Death.”

Although I enjoyed the interpersonal relationships here, I’m not convinced they needed 600 pages to develop. Did Greek tragedies take 600 pages to kill off three people? (Trying not to spoil the finale here). By the end of it I was positively lethargic.

I did love the character descriptions. The only thing that came alive for me here – I could not picture the school, nor the town, nor Frances’s cottage – was Henry and Bunny. Even Richard, as narrator, was faded as a worn tweed elbow patch. But Henry! Poor, terrible Henry, looming like a meddling Greek God over them all. And Bunny, the infuriating, vulnerable, insufferable Bunny – I can even see his face as he went over the cliff. They were so real to me I went to sleep frightened of Henry’s pale face and calculating eyes.

Would I recommend it? Oh, yes. Would I read it again? Definitely not.

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