27 June 2011

The Secret History by Dona Tartt

The Secret History may seem to be an intimidating book with 529 pages of dense print, hundred page chapters and reviews that call it "cerebral".  I know, you want to run away already.  But don't.  Even though all of this would usually push me away quicker than you can say intimidated the glowing reviews I read on amazon kept my interest piqued.  And I am glad I did.

Yes, the book is long.  Yes, cerebral is a good word to describe it.  But these are not the defining factors of the book at all.  What makes the story successful are the complex characters that are deeply flawed, while being deeply appealing.  The reader puts themselves in the shoes of the narrator, Richard, and takes the journey to a strange new place, meets alluring new people and undergoes a complete identity transformation as a result of their new experiences.

More interested now?  I hope you are.  While the protagonist is an important aspect to this novel, the supporting characters are no less fascinating.  In fact, they almost take centre stage at some points.  This adds to the reader's deep understanding of Richard's world.

You probably want to hear about the type of book it is now.  Well, I'm going to disagree with all of those reviews that describe the book as a psychological thriller.  Psychological, yes. Thriller, no.  There is an increase in suspense, but don't think you are getting hair raising scenes of terror.  Calling it an intellectual mystery would be a more apt description.  Yet, the reader is included in the mystery in a way that removes the book from genre conventions of a typical sleuth-style romp.  The story defies and transcends classification in a way that makes it readable for a wide variety of people.

Through the lives of the main character and his friends (or are they?) the reader becomes enveloped in a web of lies, deceit and uncertainty that threatens to fall apart at any moment.  This precarious position leads the characters to take increasingly unprecedented actions.  Although you won't be on the edge of your seat, you will always want to know what happens next, unable to predict the next possible move.

The exploits of a select group of classics students are, indeed, an unassuming place for such levels of intrigue, but it is the contrast between the reader's initial expectations of the characters and the reality that leads to such a compelling read.  Whilst reading I actually thought this would make an excellent book for schools to assign because it was so interesting, yet dealt with a variety of issues.  That, and it didn't make me want to poke my eyes out like some other books I had to read.

Ultimately, I would highly recommend The Secret History for its intellectual approach to a mystery-esque type of fiction.  A myriad of different people would enjoy the story for different reasons, part of what makes the novel so compelling.

Have you read any good books recently?

Un Bacione


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