“Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”
I should probably start this review by saying that this book might not be for everybody. But if you start to read it, and you find you like it, you might just end up loving it.
The Secret History tells the story of a group of exceptional classics students at an elite college, and it comes to us via the voice of Richard, a latecomer to the group who has to prove his intellectual capacity to them and to their tutor before being included in their world. Once he is accepted, however, he soon becomes immersed in their eccentric ways, at first loving the exclusivity, but slowly understanding just how far they are willing to go to realise their desire to really live the experiences of those ancient cultures they are so obsessed with.
I love books that introduce a mystery right from the beginning and then slowly reveal the events bit by bit – we find out on the very first page about the death of Bunny, and that Richard was at least partially responsible. It is also made clear that Richard only spends a year with this group, and that the students he makes friends with want much more than to simply read the text books given to them by their professor. If you like history, particularly ancient Greek, you will identify what drives them to move on to something more; to really live it, rather than just read about it (not that you’ll identify with how they live their lives, necessarily, but you will understand their passions).
“It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown I back, throat to the stars, “more like deer than human being.” To be absolutely free! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal! These are powerful mysteries.”
This book could probably be described as “show-off-ish,” if you know what I mean. There are of course many references to classical civilisations, with the lives of the students emulating the conflict between the wisdom of Apollo and the debauchery of Bacchus. But so what if it is show-off-ish? It’s clear when examining the themes and the characterisation in this novel that the author undoubtedly knows her stuff. I’m not going to lie; it can be a difficult read at times, with its weighty, old fashioned intellectualism. But that is part of its charm – it is a story about young people that are decidedly old before thier time in many ways, juxtaposing the modern with the antiquarian, with a bit of murderous intrigue thrown in. Difficult, but worth it.
“I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”