Uncovering the Enigma that is the Secret History

the secret historyA while back, I saw the marvellous Meltotheany raving about this book and I simply had to know more. Described as a murder mystery told in reverse, there’s something enigmatic about this story that compels you to read on. With perfect precision, Tartt plots her way backwards, unfolding ancient mysteries to reveal the dark underside of a quaint university.

I couldn’t easily explain why this book managed to dig its claws into me, because this is one hundred percent a slow burn. And yet, that somehow adds to the mystery. The intrigue of the opening only increases as the story progresses. Tartt’s style is not always one that appeals to me and yet I was engrossed throughout. Long books often need to justify their length- and this certainly does that. I was completely won over by the end of the novel. 

On top of that, it’s a really layered history: there’s their stories before they came to the college, the murder on campus and the study of classics. All add upto a fascinating account of the past. What appealed to me most of all was the way the Bacchic mystery cults were woven into the story. I especially thought that it was clever to create a little distance to this more mystical element. In the tradition of the great American novel, Richard watches from the sidelines, Nick-Carraway-style, getting more involved as the plot progresses.

I will admit this remoteness did sometimes impact how I connected with the story- although overall I felt the characters were fascinating. There were hints of unreliability, faint lines of paradox and brushes of humanity- all creating wistful portraits I could not tear my eyes away from.

Another truly great thing about this book, in light of this almost idolatrous characterisation, was how the retrospective element slanted the story and how we see it. Not to get completely spoilery, but for parts of the story I was wondering how in the name of the Pantheon Richard could romanticise all these terrible people, but by the end I had an “ohh that makes sense moment”- as clearly as if Dionysis himself had whispered in my ear.

audiobook2Speaking of great gods talking to me, I got really into the audiobook version read by the author. I definitely think it helped me get through this hefty tome- and in the middle of a slump as well!

I can safely say this book lends itself to summer reading- the languid recollections and poetic writing simultaneously lulled and thrilled me from beginning to end. I see why this book is so beloved.

Rating: 4½/5 bananas

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So have you read this? Do you plan to? Let me know in the comments!

An Exhaustive Study of Why the Goldfinch is Too Long

The_goldfinch_by_donna_tartI’ll try to be brief- or as brief as I can be with a rant about Tartt’s supposed “masterpiece”. As you can probably tell from the title, I’m not so sure I succeeded.

Let’s start with the positives, shall we? The Goldfinch painting by Fabritius is beautiful. It’s just a shame the book wasn’t. Okay, I guess I ran out of positives, cos let’s face it I really did not like this book.

The most obvious issue was that it was too damn long. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against long books. In fact, nothing gives me more pleasure than sinking my teeth into a really hefty, beautiful book. But this book was at best mediocre- and I hate wasting hours of my time on mediocrity.

Because it is *at best* mediocre. Even when a bomb *literally goes off* the narrative style remains the same. It is slow, plodding and filled with tangential details. There is no contrast in speeds or intensity- which makes me wonder if the author has any control over her narrative. In fact, it becomes pretty clear the author has no emotional range as the book progresses. I mean, it’s about a boy that has just lost his mother, and all we get from him is something along the lines of “I was feeling bad but didn’t show it”. I hate to cite the “show don’t tell” rule, but seriously, this had me grinding my teeth in frustration. Where was the psychological trauma? Where was the expression of pain? I mean, give me something for crying out loud!

But no, that fell flat. Much like the rest of the book. I mean it was only propped up by flat cardboard characters. Not one of them felt real. Initially, when the mother was introduced as this fragmented, idealised figure, I thought it made sense that the narrator would idealise her after she died. But then, as the plot went on, I realised none of the characters had any personality or originality to make them feel like anything more than a faint sketch of a human being. They were all just type-casts. There was The Mobster, The Money Grabbing Father, The Evil Stepmother (I kid you not, this was a character), The Rebel (Boris- who also filled the sanctimonious preachy role), and The Kindly Old Man. I found myself rolling my eyes as cliché after cliché stepped out of the woodwork to join a rather exhaustive list of uninteresting caricatures.

On top of that, it took ages for the plot to go anywhere. And then when things did happen I found myself questioning everything. I didn’t understand why he had to go to Vegas; I didn’t understand why he came back. Heck- I didn’t understand why it went in any direction. Unfortunately, by the time the strands all came together at the end and it started to make sense, it was too late to save my interest.

And then there was the ending! *Groans all around*. I have to give the book a tiny slither of credit in that the heist itself was entertaining. But even with that slight glimmer of hope that there was something to salvage from this 800-page-chore, the ending had such huge plot holes I could’ve driven a bus through them. I mean- for starters- how did they manage to get away without the police asking questions *and* get the reward money *and* go off to live happily ever after. It didn’t make much sense, but then, there were plenty of other things that didn’t make sense in the book.

Then of course, there was the ending that Tartt tagged on so she could be “profound”. This involved the Kindly Old Man stepping in to give a “nice” speech about the power of art (or whatever). And she uses Hobie to do it- even though it makes no sense since he’s just been lied to by the boy he took in- just because he is a convenient voice for her pretentious ramblings.

But the funny thing is, she didn’t even understand how exquisitely ironic it was to quote Picasso saying: “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. I mean, by lifting those words and plonking them in her book like a talisman, I’m sure she thought she was “stealing”. In actuality she was just copying. If she had caught the sentiment and expressed it in her art, then it would have been stealing. Yet sadly, Tartt does not know her craft as well as she thinks she does.

What she failed to understand when she inserted that quote into her book is that good art never has to justify itself. Great art does not need other art to prop it up. Copying that quote just reeked of pretention. And that pretentiousness underscores the reason why this book is so long: it was not long because it had to be, but because the author is self-indulgent.

And for all that the best rating I can feasibly give is:

Rating: 2/5 bananas

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(That’s with me trying my best not to be too trigger happy, docking bananas as I went, and judging it on how “good” it was overall)

Alrighty then- agree? Disagree? Just want some bananas? Let me know in the comments below!