Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Secret History - Donna Tart

A little heads up at the beginning. 'The Secret History' Donna Tart's debut novel is not a murder mystery or thriller, as the name and blurbs about it which mention 'Dionysian rites',  etc, suggest. Yes, a murder does occur at the very beginning of the novel itself, but the murderers are known immediately and the novel is basically a coming of age novel which traces in reverse order the events that led to a murder and it's aftermath. So do not be disappointed after reading this expecting a mystery.

The novel is set in an elite college. Richard, one of the main protagonists joins the college on a scholarship.  Coming from a  middle class background, he is at unease there and tries to fit in by lying about his background. He is particularly fascinated by a group of 5 students who are studying Ancient Greek which is taught by an enigmatic professor Julian Morrow. Richard manages to get into the course and becomes friends with the group. As he gets closer to them, the aura of confidence, well-settledness that the group projected comes across as a facade. Each one of them seems to be battling a personal issue. Though Richard becomes a part of their group, he is still unsure about several things for e.g. about the way Bunny manages to manipulate the other members of the group to do his bidding (settling his bills, taking him on a holiday etc). Richard gets drawn into the vortex and becomes a participant as well as being an observer of it. Things come to a head which result in the events at the beginning of the novel. The aftermath of the murder where the group slowly disintegrates is heartrending. They try to come to terms with the murder and mostly fail. It is the end of a significant chapter of their life and each one grows into adulthood in a tortured way, living a life (sometimes forced) they had not even imaginged as college students. It is the usual tragic story of unfulfilled and broken dreams. Telling more would be basically giving out the entire story and so I will stop here.

The main thing that struck me while reading the novel is that, for a first time novelist Donna Tart has complete emotional control over the work (i.e) the characters may get emotional, they may rant and rave, they may do unreasonable things, but you never get the feeling that the author has just let go of herself while writing it. (reminded me a bit of Alice Munro in this aspect of ). The unraveling of each character as the novel progresses is done like peeling the layers of an onion, only in this case there is always something underneath. Bunny who initially comes across as a slob, a parasite living on the bigheartedness of his friends becomes a more tormented, sinister character as we get to know his family background and the events that happened earlier. This also changes our view of the group who put up with his antics. Though initially they seem to be putting up with him for the sake of friendship, we get to know that self preservation could have motivated them to do it.  She also nails cleanly the the insecurities of adolescence, confusions about one's sexuality, the urge to belong, which makes one project a different and false image of oneself to the world than the actual one. 

The only flip side I felt about the book was that it becomes a bit of a slog at times, particularly the period where the characters go on a winter break. This part is not germane to the plot. Also a minor quibble. 'Julian Morrow' the Greek professor comes across as an enigmatic character intially but nearly drops out of the novel as it progresses. It's logically correct as he is not the focus of the novel but the initial setting up of the character results in the reader feeling (from a purely emotional standpoint) that Morrow has been shortchanged by the writer. 

This is good old fashioned writing (not for Donna Tart the tricks and styles of post modernism), with a solid plot and well fleshed out characters. A word of caution however, this is not by any means an enjoyable work, rather it is disturbing and unsettling. The attempt of the author to get at the dark side lurking in each of us could be unnerving.  It is the sort of work that affects you, but makes you wary of going back and re-reading it again. If you are okay with it give it a try. Highly recommended in that case.

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