Friday, 4 April 2008

There was an eerie familiarity to Donna Tartt's The Secret History [ ] from the very start. Set in a liberal arts college on America's east coast, the characters reek of privilege and ennui, both counterfeit and genuine. With all the characters apart from Richard, the story's narrator, the reality of their privilege seems unquestionable, then uncertain. Early on I felt I was reading about some poor cousin of Gatsby, and indeed we find The Great Gatsby explicitly mentioned before too long.

This is an unsettling book, not just because it is a narrative of murder, but because it fools the reader into a sense of boyish companionship with its early 1950's feel. Gatsby has his own problems, but one tends to read his story alongside The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager - they form part of your development as a reader. Tartt takes advantage of this - this tradition allows her access to a vulnerable place in our consciousness, but her novel changes, and pulls us from the familiar decay of a 1950's style narrative into an all too modern world of flat screen televisions and destroyed glamour. I actually thought that the book was set in the 1960's until after the central murder which acts a fulcrum for the story's events. In the early sequences, we are immersed in a world of cocktails (or 'highballs' as Gatsby and Caulfield might know them), over-expensive suits, and snobby intellectuality. It is not pleasant, but it is exotic. The world which emerges after the murder is our own - this is the fallen paradise in which the murderers must face up to what they have done. I finished this book wishing I could have stayed in the book's first half, and in that sense its chilling conclusion is particularly effective.

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