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!