Book of a lifetime: The Secret History, By Donna Tartt

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The Independent Culture

I had a flirtation with The Secret History before I ever read it. I'd seen all the press that the book and its enigmatic author received and knew that this was the one for me. The problem was that I was still at school and couldn't justify the expense of a hardback. I remember standing in bookshops, picking it off the shelves, reading a page or two before putting it hurriedly back, not wanting to spoil it. In the end my mother ordered it from our local library and the wait began.

When at last it arrived, it was everything that I had hoped. The story of a tight-knit group of classics students at an exclusive private college in Vermont, who in the course of recreating a Bacchanalian rite kill a man and then are forced to murder one of their own number to cover their tracks, it is both boldly intellectual and a page-turner in the true sense. The book might have been written for me; its 600 pages contained what I did and still do love most in books: a brooding atmosphere that shimmers with menace, unflinching psychological analysis, fresh and exciting writing and, perhaps best of all for someone doing university entrance papers in Latin and Greek, classics. The book seemed a vindication of the study of classics, a testament to the continuing relevance and importance of those literatures.

It is one of the triumphs of the book that its dark catalyst, the Dionysian rite, which any contemporary reader would approach with cynicism, is carried off with dazzling aplomb. By the time Henry, the linguistic genius and true scholar of the group, tells the story of the night that they ran wild on the mountainsides of Vermont – "wolves howling around us and a bull bellowing in the dark. The river ran white" – we are in Donna Tartt's hands entirely. Nonetheless, she makes that rite entirely credible. Though doubtless most of her readers would struggle with the idea that one of the Greek pantheon appeared to a group of college students on an American hillside in the 1980s, as does her narrator – "You saw Dionysus, I suppose?" – Tartt writes in such a way that we do not question what Henry believes he saw that night.

It is the same effect that Euripides, the most modern and psychologically accurate of the great Greek tragedians, achieves in The Bacchae, the play to which The Secret History is in many ways a homage. Dionysus is there, but the play works equally well without the divine element, as a devastating psychological portrait of a man destroyed by his "fatal flaw". In The Bacchae, Pentheus's flaw is his prurient curiosity about Dionysian rites; for Richard Papen, a scholarship student from California, it is "a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs".

Lucie Whitehouse's novel 'The House at Midnight' is published by Bloomsbury

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