Tuesday, December 24, 2013

One thing leads to another

Donna Tartt is the author of The Goldfinch, Michiko Kakutani's favorite book of the past year. That's enough of an endorsement for me, but being a cheapskate, I'm waiting for the paperback. So I gave Tartt's first novel, The Secret History (1992), a try. If you have not done so, you should do the same.

The Secret History tells the story of a peculiar group of friends at a small New England college who decide, for reasons revealed in the book, to murder one of their friends. (You find out about the murder in the first sentence, so I am not spoiling anything here.) The story is told in a straightforward first-person narrative by one of the students, the last to join the group and thus an insider with something of an outsider's perspective. No fancy-pants modernism for Ms. Tartt; the plot proceeds quite linearly in a style that one of the cover blurbs describes as owing more to the nineteenth century than to the twentieth. I can't disagree, but this is nineteenth-century style of the very highest order--think Henry James--but done up with southern Gothic flare.

Narrative. As in, "one thing leads to another," and indeed it does, with a vengeance. Tartt takes her time telling the story--the novel weighs in at just over 550 pages--but the pace is anything but leisurely. We move from one set piece to another, from creepy to funny to tragic and back. The descriptions are crisp, precise, and startling... at the burial, for example, the mother of the victim and one of his brothers: "Patrick offered her an arm and she slipped a gloved hand in the crook of his elbow, inscrutable behind her dark glasses, calm as a bride" (418). Now there's a simile that knocks you upside the head. You are tempted to stop reading and think about that one, but your eyes race ahead to find out what's coming next.

There's much more to praise. Critics loved her clever literary allusions; I was equally impressed with her dead-on depictions of hangovers... one suspects she knows of what she writes, which makes you wonder what other skeletons reside in her closet.

Just read it!

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