How many times has pop culture told us that university is the best time of your life; years of re-invention, of finding your kindred spirits, of losing yourself in new pursuits – intellectual or otherwise. For Richard Papen, beginning his Bachelor’s at an elite college in New England means an escape from his stifling upbringings in small-town nowhere in Northern California. For here lies freedom:
“I was happy in those first days as really I’d never been before, roaming like a sleep-walker, stunned and drunk with beauty. A group of red-cheeked girls playing soccer, ponytails flying, their shouts and laughter carrying faintly over the velvety, twilit field. Trees creaking with apples, fallen apples red on the grass beneath, the heavy sweet smell of apples rotting on the ground and the steady thrumming of wasps around them. Commons clock tower; ivied brick, white spire, spellbound in the hazy distance. The shock of first seeing a birch tree at night, rising up in the dark as cool and slim as a ghost. And the nights, bigger than imagining: black and gusty and enormous, disordered and wild with stars.”
He soon finds himself swept up in an enigmatic group of fellow Classics scholars; Henry, Bunny, Charles, Camilla and Francis. Eccentric, wealthy and gifted, Richard becomes obsessed with fitting in; reinventing his own lacklustre childhood for their benefit and hanging onto their every word. At the centre of their academic life is idiosyncratic professor Julian, in whose classes they explore ideas of morality;
“‘Do you remember what we were speaking of earlier, of how bloody, terrible things and sometimes the most beautiful?’ he said. ‘It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant?'”
To this group, intent on freeing themselves from the burden of the mundane, the idea of a total loss of control has inexorable pull. Not content with exploring the notion in the abstract realm of scholarship, they become intent on taking it to the next level; to enact a Dionysiac ritual in which they supposedly are able to leave their human forms and yield themselves to a higher power.
So whilst their contemporaries are enjoying cheap beer, one-night-stands and other traditional student pursuits, this group resolve to inspire such a state of mania and frenzy that they become out of control of their actions, à la the Ancient Greeks. But it is when things turn horribly wrong that they are led down a path to even greater evil, a point from which there can be no returning.
There’s something about Donna Tartt’s writing that is so deliciously mesmerising. I can’t help thinking that she could write used car adverts and make it enticing. The way I feel about The Secret History is similar to the way I felt after finishing The Goldfinch – the plot could have been tighter, especially towards the end – but the prose was so relentlessly erudite that I still come away feeling like it has had a unique impact, a novel that will stay with me for a long time.
One of the strengths of this novel is the way Tartt implicates the reader along with the crime; you become so ensconced in this world that you start to be taken in, the horror of the act is diminished when reasoned away with such precision. A terrifying power in itself, forcing you to step outside the world of the novel, for the sake of your sanity.
The Secret History explores the perils of being swept along in the headiness of youth, the desire to transcend the mundane and the ripple effects of a single act of evil.