Friday, January 7, 2011

'The Secret History' by Donna Tartt


"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."

It's all there in the opening line, really: Bunny is going to be killed, the killers (among them our narrator) may or may not get caught, the killers are still only concerned about themselves.

I read this book on the strength of some glowing recommendations and some ecstatic reviews on the back pag, so it was almost inevitably going to disappoint. It did, but only slightly. It starts promisingly, laying out over several hundred pages how it comes to pass that Richard Papen and his friends kill their college classmate, Bunny. This, for me, is where the true brilliance of the story lies, as Tartt paints Bunny as such an odious, parasitic creature that I found myself urging the other characters to kill him as soon as possible. Such feelings, growing as they do over several hours, are far more discomforting to an immersed reader than they are while watching a film, where "Kill that fucker!" is a much more transitory, forgettable reaction. Also notable was how familiar the pretensions and arrogance of the scholarly friends felt. I read the book using my old student card as a bookmark to remind me of how jumped up and obnoxious third-level education can make you.

It's after the death of Bunny that things start to lag a little. I believe Donna Tartt spent several years writing this book, and it shows - in both good and bad ways. The prose is of a lovely standard, and the characters mostly well-drawn, but the pacing of the drama is all over the place, zipping along at one moment and leaden and flabby the next. As such, some key events feel hurried, while some more peripheral moments feel hugely over-emphasised.
Still, it's hard to imagine that there's a novelist out there who didn't overthink their debut novel to some degree, and far be it from me to denigrate what is a well-loved work, one that a lot of people feel is destined to enter the modern canon. Tartt shows a stunning coldness at times, and I find myself hoping that her third book, rumoured to be due next year, won't suffer the same consequences of an equally-lengthy gestation period.


Annie said...

Funny. In my experience, girls like it better than boys. Most boys I know lost patience with it

Anonymous said...

I loved the mood of that book. It was such a carefully constructed world that in some ways the plot almost didn't matter - I just liked wallowing in it!

Andrew said...

Annie - You're not wrong, the rave reviews I'd heard were from Rosie and the other Annie. Not sure why that is, perhaps there's something about that intense group dynamic that women can relate to more than men.

Eimear - Yeah, the mood of it is pitch-perfect. I could really identify with the clammy claustrophobia of a group of collegemates who spend too much time together.

emordino said...

The edition I read had a delightfully unsettling author photo in the back. Like a Midwich Cuckoo, she were.

Interesting-thing-you-may-have-missed bomb: cross-references with Bretty Stunellis.

Andrew said...

Yes, that is interesting. Though probably even more so if I had ever actually read any of BEE's stuff, rather than just watching the fillums.

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