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Issue 12: Vhcle Books: Secret History
 
 
 
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These strands are interwoven with masterful skill and a deft touch. It’s a dense novel, but at no point does it feel like heavy going. What’s more impressive still is the fact that this – published in 1992 – was Tartt’s first novel, begun during her sophomore year at university. I’d struggle to name any other debut this sophisticated. There’s no clumsy flailing-about as she finds a voice for her protagonist: Richard feels convincing enough that you could have a real-life conversation with him, and his telling of events is beautifully observed. The only shame is that – with her third novel in the pipeline for later this year – Tartt’s talent by far outshines her prolificness.
Perfectly paced, exquisitely realised and eventually heart-wrenchingly tragic, The Secret History is a wonderful examination of far-reaching cause and effect, and the bubbling undercurrents of tension and unpredictability that can underpin even the closest of friendships.

 
Read this review in Issue 12

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Emma Davies is a journalist from the south-west of England. She likes books, red wine and her duvet, and is at her happiest when managing to combine this trio of good things.
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It’s not often you read a murder mystery that starts out with the killing itself. At the opening of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, however, you’re starkly presented with the scenario that forms the crux of the narrative. Bunny is dead, sent tumbling from the edge of a ravine at the hands of his friends. In an eerily unsettling detail, they tell him they’ve come up there collecting wild flowers. It takes a familiar genre arrangement, upends it and infuses it with notes of Greek tragedy. From the off, you have the what, the who – even, to some extent, the how. From there, you’re taken back to the start, and the why begins to unravel itself. It’s testament to Tartt’s taut, ridiculously readable prose that the 500-odd pages that follow are never less than entirely compelling.
Richard Papen has just started studying English at a small liberal arts college in rural Vermont when he becomes fascinated by the tiny, secretive knot of Classics students: scholarly, otherworldly Henry; acerbic dilettante Francis; mesmerising twins Charles and Camilla; and mercurial, jocular Bunny. Although standoffish at first, when Richard too is accepted under the exclusive, isolating tutelage of their professor, Julian Morrow, they tentatively allow him to edge his way into their enigmatic ranks. In typical fashion, things are by no means what they seem on the surface, and events begin to spiral devastatingly out of control.
On first read, it’s gripping. I’ve lent my dogeared copy to multiple friends, only to hear wails of how late they’ve stayed up reading it, and how tired they are as a result. If that’s blame, I’m happy to shoulder it. But this is a novel that takes multiple readings to really show off its depth. It works as a set of engrossing character studies. It can be interpreted as a modern retelling of classical Greek tragedy. It serves as a book-length meditation on the chasm between beauty and reality; on the extent to which fate controls our lives; on the existence of “‘the fatal flaw’, that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life”.
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2013
 
Secret History

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Donna Tartt
 
 
 
 
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Reviewed by Emma Davies
 
Vhcle Books, Issue 12
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