Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

First published:- Jan 1st, 1992

Star Rating:-

Read in:- November, 2013

"Some things are too terrible to grasp at once. Other things - naked, sputtering, indelible in their horror - are too terrible to really grasp ever at all. It is only later, in solitude, in memory that the realization dawns: when the ashes are cold; when the mourners have departed; when one looks around and finds oneself - quite to one's surprise - in an entirely different world."

Oh this vile bunch of snot-nosed college brats, fattened on their parents' money like ticks on blood. Oh their ennui and way of seeking solace in esoteric practices believing them to be the one-way ticket to some metaphysical dimension which will exclude us mere working class mortals with our worldly woes from entering and interfering with whatever unearthly pursuits they busy themselves with. Well guess what kids? We would like to be rid of over-confident, smug, self-important, world-weary bastards like you too. I almost wish I could go on a mad rampage during an eye-roll inducing, unbelievably ridiculous Dionysian rite and kill every single one of you as well.

The Secret History is one of the best crime thrillers I have ever read. And this is perhaps because this is not a crime thriller in the conventional sense of the term but literary fiction with moral ambiguity and loss of innocence as central themes. The actual crime(s) is a minor part of the narrative and doesn't eclipse the gradual build up to it or the domino effect it triggers subtly, a devastating chain reaction which results in the collective crumbling of the fabric of 5 young lives. And it is the shadow of this crime, the anticipation of its occurrence and the crushing psychological aftermath of it that lends the narrative its true substance. A discrepancy between the occasional sting of conscience felt by the perpetrators of the crime and their previous heinously selfish justification of the act of murder is what makes this book so utterly engrossing and a veritable unputdownable. Because here we aren't dealing with the solution of a complicated police case but instead getting acquainted with a thread of events which also happen to include a murder from the narrator's point of view who is a reluctant accomplice to the crime. 

But then why the conflicted 3-star rating? That's because I foresaw every unimaginative turning point or cliched plot device thrown in for the sake of heightening the drama. A third of the way into the narrative, with the grand revelation (which is not very grand to be honest), the unravelling of the rest of the story becomes very guessable. This is not to mention the 'Argentum'-Argentina fallacy. Any attentive reader who has a grasp of high school level basic chemistry will realize that 'Aurum' refers to gold,'Argentum' refers to silver. But these aren't even the major irritants. My biggest problem is with the ludicrous contrivances that are passed off in the name of a premise for the story to build itself on. There's a tinge of unreality to the idea of a super close knit fraternity of 5 snobbish students of classical Greek in a college in 80s Vermont mentored by an even more snobbish and elitist professor, the narrator conveniently finding an entry into this brotherhood sort of grouping out of the blue and becoming a passive spectator to the sequence of events which follow. And lastly the main characters are hardly believable, especially the sole female character who remains a vaguely outlined one at best. 

The 3 stars are for Tartt's writing which is never showy or deliberate but graceful and quite excellent. I hope The Goldfinch is more impressive and free of proof-reading errors.

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