The characters in this book are so fascinating to me. They often act in ways that surprise me, but once it happens, it feels like of course, it had to be that way. The main characters are (and remain) mysterious, even the protagonist, despite the story’s first-person narrative. The small group at the centre of the story are students in the odd Classics program of a small New England college. The book is peppered with Ancient Greek, the students incorporate classical sayings and stories into their daily lives, and there’s an undercurrent of the ways in which classical and modern ways of thinking clash with each other. My minor was in Classics, so I particularly enjoyed that aspect of the book.
There are more descriptive passages in this book than I normally like. (Oh how irritating are Tolkein’s endless paragraphs meticulously detailing the looming trees and fallen leaves and twisted vines and brackish pools and murky distances and clutching branches and gnarled roots!) But Donna Tartt’s protagonist notices his environment through the lens of his own feeling-states, and so the descriptions actually seemed to be part of the plot itself rather than just supportive detail.
I really like the writing style in this book, the attention to detail, the way the characters develop, the way the classics are woven into the story and are indeed central to the plot, and how the book opens by revealing that the students murdered one of their peers. The surprise is immediately taken away; we know what is going to happen. And yet, the story leading up to and away from that huge event is suspenseful and intriguing.
This one’s a keeper. I read it once about fifteen years ago, and I’m sure I’ll read it again.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt. 1992. ISBN 0-14-016777-3 (I think; the old price sticker glue is partially obscuring it). Penguin Books.