1 January 2012

Review 1: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Kicking off Cannonball IV with a bang. For more information have a look at cannonballread4.wordpress.com/
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"Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and forever."

I loved this novel. The uninspiring cover hides a magnificent novel that works as a murder mystery in reverse as we are showed what has happened at the very very beginning and are left to discover how it came about. The novel is populated with intriguing characters, evocative settings and a story that really gets under your skin.

First Line: "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."


Story: Crucial to the story is the prologue which forces you to read on - I don't think many readers could resist the page and a half that starts with the above sentence and follows on a few lines later with, "We hadn't intended to hide the body where it couldn't be found." In normal circumstances using a quote like that in a review would count as a major spoiler but this is literally the opening to the novel. I was immediately gripped. Our narrator is Richard Papin, a new students at Hampden college, New England who joins a Greek class with a very small, hand selected group of students who are aloof and cold with the rest of the student body. The first half of the novel goes back to the start and leads us up to the murder we are show right at the beginning and the second half shows us what happens afterwards. There is actually very little else to the basic story; this is not a novel of circuitous subplots winding around each other or a multitude of minor characters and potential suspects; it is certainly not your typical murder mystery. Despite the relative simplicity of the plotting of the novel, Tartt manages to create an engaging and unpredictable story and I never sure of how she was going to bring the story to its various fixed points.

Characters: The main group of students in this novel are superbly created and Henry, the nominal leader of the group is, for me at least, the definition of a anti-hero. In fact all of the group are appealing despite their multitude of quirks and eccentricities which are on full display. Without wanting to lower the tone, their outsiderness which people are scared of  and in awe of by turn reminded me of what I think Stephenie Meyer wanted to do with the Cullens in the first Twilight novel. Needless to say, Tartt is rather more effective and she manages to create a group that is curious, entrancing and compelling. Henry is cold, arrogant and detached and yet I was desperate for him to stay safe. In fact the least appealing of the book are Richard himself and Bunny, who is killed. It is bizarre to be reading a book where your sympathies lie with the guilty party - but Tartt shows us at the beginning that this has happened and then explains to us why it had to be so and manages to make us believe we would have done the same. I suppose Richard suffers by being our narrator. He is rather passive, the events happen to him and we hear too much of what he thinks - the others are beautiful in their mystery and Tartt really conjures up a wonderful atmosphere around them. I must admit I was struck at several points throughout the novel by the desire to have the artistic talent to draw  how I pictured them in my head - this would make a superb film in the right hands.Their games both mind games and bacchanalian experiments outstretch what even their charismatic theologian professor teaches. 

Writing: This is a carefully and wonderfully constructed novel with Tartt clearly demonstrating a huge amount of talent. I was completely engrossed in this from start to finish and have been recommending it to all my reader friends. Her writing draws you in and keeps you on tenterhooks as you discover more and more about what is really going on. There were several moments where I really couldn't work out what was going to happen. It reminded me at points of The Magus by John Fowles where you think you have got the measure of things to a great degree than the narrator only to be shown by the author that you have both been wrong. I enjoyed the way that you are pulled into the absurd world of this group of students who talk to each other in Greek or Latin so those around them cannot understand and we are privy to their secrets; then when Tartt pulls back in the normal student experience of sex and drinking it jars even though that is normality. What could so easily have become a ridiculous, implausible story becomes disturbingly realistic. It really gets under your skin, and I had all sorts of strange dreams whilst I was reading it. 

Cover: I understand but hate the cover. It is so uninspiring. I understand the need for a subtle, serious cover but I certainly wouldn't have picked this up in a bookshop unless I was looking for it. There is subtle and there is just boring.  

Try it if you liked: The Magus by John Fowles or The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas

Summary: This is anything but a 'whodunnit' - more of a 'why did they do it?' It is literary but readable; a psychological thriller with notes of the gothic as well as touches of unsentimental romance and mystery. The quote from Newsday on the back cover sums it up well as 'a thinking person's thriller.' Finally, after reading the novel I would highly recommend reading The Guardian's brief series looking at the novel by John Mullan of which the first one, about the prologue, is here:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/jan/11/featuresreviews.guardianreview9?INTCMP=SRCH .

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