Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review: The Secret History

The Secret History The Secret History by Donna Tartt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'd heard high praise for Donna Tartt's books, and I picked this up in part because I thought I ought to. She's earned a reputation as one of the authors of her generation (which is my generation as well) so I figured I at least ought to be able to talk about her work.

This is long and sometimes slow, but it was worth all the hype for me. There's something in her style -- an archness, a quality of not being in a hurry -- that makes me feel as if I am somehow reading a 19th century novel, maybe something by George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, or Thomas Hardy. (Yeah, that's high praise, but there is something legitimately tragic in the arc of the characters she describes, something that feels classical from the start.) She begins with an almost quaint sense that characters matter, that the people to whom she introduces us will be relevant later and simply interesting now. It's a throwback contract with the reader: the promise that a long story will be worth the telling and worth the reading.

For all of that, it's also a very contemporary story. The first person narration makes for an effective perspective; there are key events we learn about only second hand and only well after they happen. There are also significant questions about the nature of art and culture. In good Modernist fashion, you can't quite trust anything: art may endure, but it can also mislead, yet even in the misleading it's never entirely discredited. Character and principle matter -- matter at a life or death level toward the end -- yet they also betray and also mislead.

I'm talking in abstractions in part because I don't want to leave any spoilers, but I should probably acknowledge there aren't many things to spoil. They do kill Bunny, but since the first sentence (gorgeous and deservedly quoted in many instances) tells you that, I think I can let it slip. Instead, the novel lays out its terrain and then explores it slowly and at its own pace. There were times I wanted it to move more quickly, but I also found myself slipping away during an evening to try to get through its final parts.

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