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The Secret History

by Donna Tartt

The narrator, Richard Papen introduces the idea of "…the 'fatal flaw,' that showy, dark crack running down the middle of a life…" and debates whether such a thing exists, outside literature.
Richard, of course had experienced the horrific events, a decade earlier, which proved to him that such a flaw exists. With this revelation comes a terrible loss of innocence. However, as Richard looks back, stunned and uncomprehending, we cannot help wondering whether he, or any of the others would ever really understand or be able to take responsibility for the terrible thing they did. Richard's story is about deception, subterfuge, conspiracy and a shared secret history. He wonders how to begin, to unfold the story, and takes us back in time. It is the Fall term at Hampden, an elite New England college. This is a lush, moneyed and abundant environment. Here privileged, fiercely intelligent students compete for academic and social brilliance.
Life here is furiously fast - paced. Usual student activities are peppered with academic seriousness e.g. debating Classical philosophy (Richard studies Greek.) This is clearly a hot - house, an isolated world of cliques and social order. Here the rules are hard to understand, anything could happen.

Richard is a complicated character - insecurity and a deep sense of inferiority prevent him from participating in life. As an outsider, an observer, he is well placed to comment on the world around. His life takes a dramatic turn when he is accepted into the most wittiest and most desirable clique of all and he is swept along with them. He is fascinated with their complicated and privileged lives and loves the glittering social scene. But he quickly finds that all this has a down side - the group is also dangerous and begins to stray into dark territory, taking Richard with it. The climax of this comes when they discuss at length and finally commit, a bleak and terrible murder.

However, unforeseen events conspire to wreck the carefully orchestrated plans. That night an early fall of snow obscures the crime and one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history follows. From this point onwards the group descends into escalating panic and is driven to ever more bizarre and grotesque acts.

Some powerful themes are recurrent and are at the heart of the book. These include deception, immaturity and remorse.
Tarrt meticulously strips away the layers, revealing dark and fatal flaws within the characters themselves and the world they inhabit.

This superb murder mystery has some brilliant elements: a starkly motive - less crime, a perfectly believable and fast - paced plot, characters who are both unpleasant and engaging and a brilliantly observed and richly described setting. This makes for compulsive reading … We found it nasty, convincing and disturbing…and absolutely loved it!

Your comments

"THE SECRET HISTORY was excellent with so many memorable episodes and characters to dissect."

The Book Slugs, London book group


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