top of page

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Publisher: Penguin (2008)

Genre: Psychological Thriller

When a book starts with murder, it's generally for me.

Instead of the typical book summary which I usually place here, Donna Tartt did the work for me with the following quote:

"Religious slurs, temper tantrums, insults, coercion, debt: all petty irritants - too minor, it would seem, to move five reasonable people to murder. But, if I dare say it, it wasn't until I had helped to kill a man that I realized how elusive and complex an act a murder can actually be, and not necessarily attributable to one dramatic motive. To ascribe it to such a motive would be easy enough. There was one, certainly. But the instinct for self-preservation is not so compelling an instinct as one might think. The danger which he presented was, after all, not immediate but slow and simmering, a sort which can, at least in the abstract, be postponed or diverted in any number of ways. I can easily imagine us there, at the appointed time and place, anxious suddenly to reconsider, perhaps even to grant a disastrous last-minute reprieve. Fear for our own lives might have induced us to lead him to the gallows and slip the noose around his neck, but a more urgent impetus was necessary to make us actually go ahead and kick out the chair.

Bunny, unawares, had himself supplied us with such an impetus, I would like to say I was driven to what I did by some overwhelming, tragic motive. But I think I would be lying if I told you that; if I let you to believe that on that Sunday afternoon in April, I was actually being driven by anything of the sort.

An interesting question: what was I thinking, as I watched his eyes widen with startled incredulity ('come on, fellas, you're joking, right?') for what would be the very last time? Not of the fact that I was helping to save my friends, certainly not; nor of fear; nor guilt. But the little things. Insults, innuendos, petty cruelties. The hundreds of small, unavenged humiliations which had been rising in me for months. It was of them I thought, and nothing more. It was because of them that I was able to watch him at all, without the slightest tinge of pity or regret, as he teetered on the cliff's edge for one long moment - arms flailing, eyes rolling, a silent-movie comedian slipping on a banana peel - before he toppled backwards, and fell to his death."

Sorry, that's a long fucking quote. But it perfectly sums up the book. We know from the first chapter that this group of people is going to kill their friend. The story is not only about the events leading to that, but the psychology involved. In fact, this is mainly a psychological study on group ethics.

"It is only later, in solitude, in memory, that the realization dawns: when the ashes are cold; when the mourners have departed; when one looks around and finds oneself - quite to one's surprise - in an entirely different world."

This book took me a while to get into. I picked it up and put it down several times throughout the first third of the story. Why? Mainly because Donna Tartt is exceedingly, thoroughly, frustratingly verbose. I mean I feel like I skipped entire paragraphs of completely unnecessary description on campus buildings and landscape that had zero to do with the story. I don't like to do that because I'm afraid the author will slip in a little piece of something I'll need to know later, an easter egg if you will. But not here. This book could have slimmed down at least a hundred pages and been better for it.

Not that it wasn't good. Once I hit the half-way point I absolutely could not put it down! I was committed, things were moving fast, I had to know what would happen next. There were surprises too. Of which I won't reveal a bit.

All in all, I did really like this book. Would I read Donna Tartt again? Only if it was about half the length of this one. I mean, really, that was a lot. But it was really good too! So torn.

4/5. Would have been 5/5 if it was shorter. I don't mind a long book, but I do mind an absolute shitload of unnecessary words.

458 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page