Donna Tartt's The Secret History is the Cornflower Book Group's 46th. book, and for me, one of the best. It's a first novel, but so accomplished that it could easily be taken for the work of an experienced practitioner; that said, I felt it could have done with pruning (there were too many scenes which were spiral-repeats of earlier ones, I thought) and I wasn't convinced that a good enough case was made for the first death - the reliance on absence of sentience and a sufficiently altered mental state due to Dionysiac ritual seemed underdeveloped and thus weak - or for the all-pervading influence and significance of the benevolent, cultivated Julian Morrow, facts which were stated but not illlustrated as such. But then, read the book in the light of its two epigraphs (lines from Nietzsche and Plato), allow yourself to be drawn in, and quibbles apart, it does a fine job of interpreting those themes in fictional form and carrying the reader through to the end.
I found much to admire in the novel. The setting, the relatively closed community of Hampden College and within that the small group of students, set apart by their manner, their subject of study, their whole modus vivendi. Richard is the outsider, the balancing force; he admires the others, and displaced as he is, craves membership of their élite clique - he wants to belong. For their part, the others find Richard refreshing, though that stems from an affected curiosity, and a staged ignorance of the world outside their own, but then he becomes useful to them. I found the individual characters well drawn and their complexity original and strangely compelling; their whole milieu and the academic discipline to which they were dedicated gave a richness to the book which was powerful in both a structural and a more superficial sense. The narrative drive was strong, the pull of the plot in the "hermetic, overheated atmosphere", the external drama and the internal struggles of conscience over self-preservation, too, and all this made for a dark, clever book, one of flair and real technical skill.
For those who had read the book before and were re-reading it for the group, how did you find it second time round? If you were coming to it, as I was, for the first time, what did you make of it? Did you find the characters' amorality (and snobbery) off-putting, or was their predicament so well-constructed that, in the spirit of the book's events, there was no other plausible way for them to act? Was Richard's absorption by the group probable or likely? Have you read Donna Tartt's second book The Little Friend, and if so, how does it compare to her first, and if you haven't read it, would you be inclined to do so now? (I certainly would).
Edited to add: The Secret History cake is here.
By the way, and on a purely personal note, this is Cornflower Books' 1,000th. post. Thankyou for sticking with me thus far.