The Secret History: A Review
- Hia Sinha
Trigger Warning- suicide, disturbing themes, murder
‘Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it’.
This quote said in The Secret History by the eccentric Professor Julian Morrow is perfect to describe the entire story. Through eerie comparisons to events which happened in Greek myths, a generally depressive atmosphere due to the way the narrator dictates his story and exceedingly brilliant imagery, Donna Tartt has provided us with one of the best works in the dark academia genre. The story follows the narrator, Richard Papen, through the halls of Hampden College. I will try my best to convey the madness of the book without spoilers, at least for the first paragraph, so if you haven’t read the book, make sure to click off once you see the spoiler warning!
The aforementioned narrator, Richard Papen, hails from California. There, he spent his time confused with which direction he wanted to take in life. After a spat with his parents, who were one of the biggest reasons for his unhappiness, he sent an application to the elite Hampden College in Vermont. He initially entered as a literature major, but upon an encounter with a mysterious bunch of students studying ancient greek, he decided to change his major. These students- Henry Winter, Edmund Corcoran, Charles and Camilla Macaulay and Francis Abernathy- were reputed across campus for being reclusive; they rarely sought the company of others and were the only students on campus who studied ancient greek. The first appearance of this group, perceived by the narrator, is like one from the movies; they’re all dressed in dark and mysterious colours, one of them wears a false pince-nez (Francis, being described as the most exotic dresser with his white shirts and french cuffs).
This is a scene straight out of something from the romantic era in such a modern and common setting as a university campus. They are also characterised as being ‘rich kids’- most of them being trust fund babies or being born with a silver spoon in their mouths. They are also closed off from the rest of the students because their professor, Julian Morrow, only accepts 5 students in his class. After a chance encounter with them, which influences Richard’s decision to change departments, he finds out that they are much more human than the label he first gave them. Instead of being an outsider, though he had joined late, he was welcomed warmly. We can tell the narrator looks at this period of time in his life with rose coloured glasses, because it was a respite from his dreary existence in his hometown of Plano and the first time in his life he felt like he was doing all that he wanted. This period of time, of course, was all soft and warm. They would travel to the twins’ (Charles and Camilla) villa on the weekends and spend long hours there. They would walk by the lake or take a nap on the boat. Picture perfect until, of course, the murder happened.
I’d like to talk about the book in more detail now, so all of those that haven’t read the book, shoo!
There are a number of things that make TSH so different from all the other books in the genre. One is the odd placement of the murder; it's the very first thing we read, and then we are told the story of their lives before and after said murder. It’s not even a mystery! It is also hard to identify the climax, because all this time we’ve been led to believe that it was the murder that was the highest point of action in the story, however, the same level of shock and awe comes from the very ending of the book that causes the group to break apart in a gruesome manner. Another unique thing is that the narrator is seemingly disconnected from the rest of the group, not because he’s seen as inferior or unfamiliar, but merely because the others fear his judgement; when Richard finds out from Henry about the Bacchanal that the others had attempted and even gains the knowledge that they had accidentally killed a man in these escapades, the first reaction of the entire group is fear. They’re afraid that they’ll lose Richard’s trust, and this again highlights their human face which wasn’t so apparent in their first appearance. We hear about the narrator’s dreary winter vacation where he almost died due to hypothermia, we hear about his sleep problems and his strange friendship with Judy Poovey, but we are only able to witness from the sidelines the true insanity that the rest of his friends get up to.
As the book progresses, the story certainly develops a much darker tone and it all kind of deteriorates, really; the characters all have their own problems going on and all of them aren’t revealed as they happen. Again, we’re made aware of how little our narrator is actually aware of the things happening as they go on; he wasn’t even supposed to be there when Bunny was murdered! After Bunny’s death, the group has the expected reactions, being restless and feeling enormous guilt. But the whole situation gets WORSE somehow, as it snows in Hampden that night and covers his body with snow, which inspires his classmates and family to begin a search in which the rest of his friends are forced to participate in. The FBI gets involved, causing them great stress but it turns out to be a false alarm.Honestly, another feature that really struck a chord within me was how right after killing Bunny, they made it a point to emphasise his misogynistic and homophobic tendencies as if somehow; that justified the murder. That instant really shows how they’re just university kids; a murder isn’t exactly something on the agenda for that age group.
Soon after, their relationships crumble; it is revealed that Camilla, who had led on the narrator the whole time, was actually in an incestuous relationship with Charles, who was abusing her physically because he had turned into an alcoholic. To escape from the abuse, she began living with Henry, with whom she also had a relationship. Francis and Charles also had a relationship of a sexual nature, but it was one sided as Charles did not love Francis. The book ends with Henry abruptly killing himself and that is undoubtedly the event that breaks apart the group forever. They all never quite end up communicating properly again.
I don’t suppose I’ll ever be able to come up with a proper ending to this review because of the amount of emotion this book elicits in me, so I will just leave it at that with a quote from the book itself-
“Does such a thing as 'the fatal flaw,' that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn't. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”
Illustrated by Avani Gupta