The-Secret-History1“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.”

I bought The Secret History on the recommendation of a very literary friend of mine last year, although was, as usual, daunted by the size. However, this week it felt right. I was going away and needed something substantial to distract me on the plane, and I’d grown increasingly aware of the jet black spine that kept looking down at me.

The book opens with the knowledge that one of the characters, Bunny, is going to die. Not just die, but he will be murdered by his friends, who include our narrator, Richard Papen. The story the jumps back an undisclosed amount of time and we meet Richard properly. He is a middle class teenager from California who enjoys reading and studying Greek. His parents have no education and don’t understand this desire of his. He starts at one university, studying medicine, then Greek and English, but soon realises he needs to leave his parents orbit and so applies to Hampden College in Vermont, where his life will change forever.

He attempts to get onto the Greek course, but the reclusive professor, Julian Morrow, is hugely selective about his students and only has five people on his course, claiming that it is full. Richard begins to obsess over these five, and after a few curious meetings, is invited to join the Greek course and get to know them properly.

They are: Henry, deeply studious and serious, always wears suits and carries an umbrella; Francis, red-headed hypochondriac who is a bit more fun than Henry; the twins, Charles and Camilla, practically identical in every way, slightly Aryan, airy and the kindest of the group; and of course Bunny, the joker of the pack who has been almost shunned by his family and struggles most with money issues. They are all wealthy, intelligent, eccentric and definitely misfits. Richard worships them and is in awe that they’ve let him in.

But Richard soon realises that he is not privy to all of their secrets, and they regularly meet without him. One day it all spills out, the terrible secret that they’ve been keeping. Bunny has found out about it too, and he’s now blackmailing his friends, ensuring that they spend every last cent they’ve got on him. Henry begins to fear that Bunny will announce their secret to the world and comes to a rather startling conclusion: Bunny has to die.

Bunny does indeed die, and the second half of the novel (which drags on a little too much) is dedicated to the aftermath of this event and how it affects the surviving five.

Due to the characters all studying Greek, this indeed does read a little like a Greek tragedy, with emphasis on beauty, death, sacrifice and secrets. Charles and Camilla seem at first to be the characters you’d most want to meet, but by the end I would suggest it was Francis. There’s a good case for Richard, because at least he’s not quite as pretentious as the others, but there’s still something distinctly unpleasant about him. All the students at Hampden are pretentious in some way or other, but the central group are moreso than any. Francis wears accessory pince-nez, for example. They drink only the finest alcohol (and are practically always drunk), but the most ridiculous moment is actually a background character, an art student who is using paintbrushes as chopsticks.

While the world they inhabit seems nice – big houses, endless wealth, great prospects, huge intelligence – it’s unclear if any of them are actually happy. They have all been cast out from regular society, although his is partly Julian’s fault, as he has little contact with the rest of the college faculty and keeps himself and his classes as far apart from them as possible. Especially after the murder, their facade of happiness begins to unravel and they start having to deal with their problems more and more in isolation.

Richard is the blandest character, which is odd given that he’s the one writing the confessional, but that doesn’t mean he’s two-dimensional. There’s a lot to him; it’s just that the other characters are so wonderfully crafted. It’s unclear how much Richard says is the truth and how much is embellished, but that makes it all the more interesting. The book plays with beauty and truth, and how the two are interlocked.

I was wary about the book before I started it, and it really is the very definition of literary fiction, but nonetheless I really enjoyed it. Though dense, large parts of it sail by, and you can’t bring yourself to properly hate any of the characters, not really, because they all seem to possess a sort of charm that makes you forget their foibles, even the really nasty ones, and focus on the fact that they seem decent people. After all, they’re attractive, intelligent and moneyed – doesn’t that make you perfect in society’s eyes?

An excellent novel; very interesting and cleverly constructed, like Euripedes crossed with Bret Easton Ellis.

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