The Secret History by Donna Tartt, book of a lifetime

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The Independent Culture

The older I get, the harder it becomes to find books I truly love. Before I was in my mid-20s I think there were only three books I read and didn't finish, and that includes everything I studied taking English Lit at university.

Now I often give up on books if I've read a few chapters and find I don't really care about the action or the characters. As a child I was effortlessly transported into new worlds.

Now I struggle to make that journey – except when I'm writing. Though I often like and/or admire novels, I don't often come across a story that I devour and really want to read and reread. The Secret History, by Donna Tartt is an exception.

I first read this book before ever trying to write myself and was immediately swept up in the narrative. It follows the young life of scholarship student Richard, who finds himself drawn to a group of mysterious students at his new college and then discovers they are keeping a truly terrible secret. It's twisted and suspenseful, but with light touches that throw the dysfunctional relationships it depicts into stark relief.

A few years after first reading The Secret History I wrote my first book and had it published. Ten years on I've produced over 20, mostly psychological thrillers for teenagers and, more recently, grown-ups. In that time I've come to realize that The Secret History is typical of the kind of book I'm aspiring to write. For a start, there's a dark secret at it's heart – in fact several dark secrets. These emerge with perfect pacing through the story, which features many of my favourite elements: the characters are fascinating and powerfully drawn; the main action takes place in a closed community – in this case a US college; relationships – both familial and romantic – are complex and completely convincing; we follow the action through the eyes of a single character becoming, like him, more and more embroiled. The stakes are high so that everything in the story matters – both to the main character and to us as readers, and the suspense builds steadily to a powerful climax. For me, The Secret History is not just a great read; it's become, over the years, an inspiration for my own writing.

Sophie McKenzie's latest novel is 'Here We Lie' (see review above)

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