37. ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt.

The Secret History

I have enjoyed this weeks main read so much. I bought this copy for Mum, and another for myself, at Waterstone’s on Trafalgar Square in 2002 – we were so excited to finally read Ms. Tartt’s much acclaimed debut novel, first published ten years earlier.  And we were not disappointed – it’s magnificent. It still is, as a re-read.

Written by, in both Mum’s and my opinion, one of the most accomplished authors of modern times, this is a dramatic and compelling murder mystery, laced with references to ancient cultures and veering away from the usual sex drugs and rock n roll towards a far darker world. It tells the story of a small group of American college students, extremely clever but eccentric misfits who come under the influence of their charismatic Classics professor.

The opening lines of the prologue – ‘The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation’.

In the course of recreating a Bacchanalian rite, a man dies. Eventually, one of their own must be killed to maintain the secret. I’m really not giving away the plot telling you this, as we find all this out right from the start.  It is the brilliantly written drama of how, why, who, when that is the captivating heart of this novel, and which keeps you turning the pages, wanting to discover how they got to that point, and why.

The central narrator is Richard Papen, an outsider to begin with, coming from a bland, sun drenched Californian suburban environment to study at an old Vermont college, where he falls in with a tightly knit group of five rather unappealing, snooty, and deliberately ‘different’ Classics major students. They are obsessed with the ancient Greeks, in an elitist and unpleasant manner, flaunting the fact that they care little for modern life, funded by family money, and fuelled by whiskey. It’s set in the 1980’s and is a world away from the Wall Street type novels of that era, in the same way that the group of characters strives to be apart from the general blandness of 1980’s college life.

Richard is the only member of the group with no money, a fact he tries very hard to conceal. He only gains membership of the group through solving a Greek problem, and then spends most of his time trying to maintain his friendship with the group – it’s hard to see why sometimes, as most of them are seriously un-likeable, and behave with complete disregard for the feelings of others – a deliberately contrived element of the book that works brilliantly. During the 600 + pages we are led through both the before and the after of the murders, and I warn you now there are a lot of controversial topics; incest, homosexuality, and suicide attempts all feature. But we are led through them with such beautiful prose.

I have read this at least three times. It is a novel that cannot be read fast, occasionally, one has to just stop and breathe. I have read parts of it on a beach, but it is not what you’d call a beach read; it is deep, dark, and magnificently written. For me, it is the fragility of friendships and relationships with ones peers, and the need to be ‘more’ than them, (very Nietzsche), that ‘drives’ the book, and Ms. Tartt drives this one impeccably.

I shall be sorry to see this one go, but as always, should you like to add this marvellous debut novel to your own collection, please get in touch either here or on the Facebook page, and I shall be delighted to gift it forward to you, (with a BeckyandVince Signature book thong!) If you have never read it, a spot of good news for you is that Ms. Tartt has since written two more astonishing books, and unlike Mum and I, you won’t have to wait years for her to publish something else!

Here is an Amazon link for you to purchase a copy of your own if Mum’s has already been claimed…it is, in my humble opinion, a true classic, and not to be missed.

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8. ‘The American Boy’ by Andrew Taylor.

Goodness me, what a good read this was on several levels! Published in 2003 and bought by Mum two years later, it impressed me so much with the attention to period detail as well as the story itself. What we have here is a modern writer presenting a Regency era murder mystery – one could be forgiven for thinking it was created by a contemporary of Jane Austen, not a twentieth century author. Its a classic nineteenth century style tale of an impoverished and undistinguished man who through luck and courage improves his circumstances, and eventually makes an ‘advantageous match’. I really enjoyed this.

The narrator is one Thomas Shield. He’s a young schoolteacher with a bit of a ‘past’, who takes up a position at a school in the leafy village of Stoke Newington, run by the marvellously unpleasant Mr Bransby. The brutality of the English public school system is evident, and used nicely to indicate Shields sensitivity. We read about the arrival of a new boy, Charles Frant, and his friend, who turns out to be the American boy of the title, the young Edgar Allan Poe. Cleverly, Mr Taylor does not make Poe the central character, choosing instead to give some elegant, thinly disguised nods to Poe’s later writings – a horrid parrot reminiscent of Poe’s raven, a scene where Thomas Shield fears he is about to be buried alive. The real relevance of Poe to the story is only revealed at the end.

Through his friendship with the boys and subsequent relationship with the families, Shield is asked to become their private tutor at a country house in Gloucestershire. Events start to unfold rapidly – Shields attraction to two women, the collapse of Frant’s father’s bank, a gruesome murder and dismemberment, an incident in an ice house….its all there, with the squalor of big money and illicit sex providing an almost modern seasoning.

The prose is in a perfect Regency tone. There are wonderful descriptive passages about the London Rookeries, the squalid slums surrounding St Giles; travel by coach; the desperation of the poor in a pre welfare state England. Shield himself is young, and more than a little interested in sex; he fantasises about almost every woman he encounters.

I thought Mr Taylor’s use of language, and his blend of historical fact – Edgar Allan Poe did go to school in England, and wrote about his experiences later – with a satisfyingly mysterious whodunnit was excellent. If you have read and enjoyed Sarah Waters, you’ll love this. Big thumbs up – and as always, if you’d like this book, let me know and it will become yours!