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Donna Tartt: The Secret History

I have met few people who have read this book who didn’t say that it was one of the best and most haunting books that they have ever read. Like many great books, the plot cannot begin to tell why it has such a great impact on readers. Nor can a description of the characters, though it is the characters that drive this novel. What makes it so worthwhile, is the superb writing of Tartt who is able to maintain a sense of mystery that does not depend on the plot, who creates characters who think more than act and who, above all, creates an enclosed world which seems to lives on its own just as much as Proust‘s Paris and Kafka‘s Castle. For, though the main characters do live and function in the real world – in this case a US university – they seem detached from the real world and its set of behaviours. However, as other commentators have pointed out, it is more The Great Gatsby and Brideshead Revisited that this novel recalls.

The plot is relatively straightforward. It is narrated by Richard, who is an outsider to the core group. Richard gradually learns that the small group has partaken in a Dionysian rite at which one of their number was killed. The body was buried under the snow and, of course, once the snow thaws, all will be revealed. How the death comes about, the effect of the waiting, how Richard gradually uncovers what went on and, of course, the interaction between the members of the group, are the core of the novel. Tartt brilliantly keeps us not only guessing but, more importantly, drags us into the group as co-conspirators. There is a dreamlike quality to the whole novel that is also found in The Great Gatsby and Brideshead Revisited that achieves what great novels should achieve – to take you in another world and make you part of that world.

Publishing history

First published 1992 by Knopf