Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

‘I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone’s life when character is fixed forever … for me, it was that first fall term I spent at Hampden.’

With a fresh academic year stretching out before us, the formative weight that Donna Tartt places on our university years may seem daunting. Rest assured that Tartt’s fictive Hampden College is worlds away from the ANU. Unless you somehow become embroiled in a murder with a group of overinvolved Classics students, you should manage to avoid the same darkness that permeates Richard Papen’s recollection of his time as a student at Hampden.

Tartt’s 1992 novel opens by recounting the demise of Bunny Corcoran with a scarcity of detail that disappears later in the lengthy book. Time then shifts backwards, with the first half of The Secret History reading as a suspenseful murder mystery, populated by the eccentric students of Hampden’s elite Classics department. Beyond the small class’s interest in Ancient Greek, they are united by their extraordinary wealth, dandyish sensibilities, and a misplaced sense of superiority over the greater student body. Richard, a middle-class Californian, is somehow seamlessly integrated into their Dionysian crew. His quick acceptance into their circle is not the only point where The Secret History diverges from a sense of reality.

The students of Hampden embody the most well-worn clichés of the university Arts student.  Throughout the novel, a bevvy of under-performing creative types seem to appear in a plume of cigarette smoke, ready to offer Richard mysterious pills from their limitless dorm room supplies. The Greek class, with whom Richard spends most of his time, are bizarrely self-absorbed. Henry, a linguistic wunderkind who is said to speak eight languages, is shocked upon learning from a classmate that man has, in fact, walked on the moon. The group seems to survive on a diet of expensive liquor, pricey French cuisine and elaborate home-cooked meals, nary a bowl of mi goreng in sight. The almost implausible pretentiousness of the blazer-wearing, Greek-aphorism-quoting main cast is one of the novel’s most frustrating elements.

Despite this, I found it hard not to become enwrapped in the insular world of Hampden. The suspense introduced with Bunny’s murder carries through the book, and Tartt’s prose does an incredible job of sustaining the gloomy opulence of her characters. The eccentricities of the central characters, whilst at times grating, are part of a surreal world that diverges just slightly from our own. Considering the story is told retrospectively as Richard recollects of his university heydays, it is perhaps apt that certain elements are embellished. It’s easy to see how a character, with a taste for the dramatic, would romanticise a time of life that brought both newfound freedom, and a huge amount of emotional turbulence.

I can’t imagine that The Secret History provides a realistic insight into many people’s academic careers. Tartt’s novel nevertheless succeeds as a gripping, borderline fantastical murder mystery. With my copy weighing in at 629 pages, its ability to keep the pages turning must partially account for its continued popularity over the 25 years it has been in print. The Secret History succeeds as a work of escapism, and a particularly beautifully written one at that. If, however, you’re looking for an insightful portrait of everyday life at a university you will not find it in this dark tale. I’m choosing to remain grateful for that.