I know I read this years ago because of its popularity but on my return to books this year I have been re-introduced to how popular it is, often quoted as someone’s favourite books and many writers give it as one of their favourite books. Just today the BBC announced a Top 100 List of stories that authors feel endure the ages and this is one of the most modern novels in the list, the number 1 is The Odyssey by Homer!
The Secret History was one of my great charity shop finds a few weeks ago and I finally picked it up. As I read it I really vaguely remembered it but I think I may have read it in the 90’s, and that was a long time ago. So really this was like a first read for me. How did it go?
The Blurb:- The Secret History tells the story of a group of classics students at an elite American College, who are cerebral, obsessive and finally murderous…it is a haunting compelling and brilliant piece of fiction. (The Times)
Precis:- The Prologue immediately introduces us to this book and informs that,
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history – state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hamden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston. It is difficult to believe that Henry’s modest plan could have worked so well despite these unforeseen events. We hadn’t intended to hide the body where it couldn’t be found. In fact, we hadn’t hidden it at all but had simply left it where it fell in hopes that some luckless passer-by would stumble over it before anyone else noticed he was missing…”
We learn in Chapter one that our narrator for this tale is Richard Papen who moved to New Hampshire from California when he was 19, to go to college. He has studied Greek for a couple of years so wants to take this as a class but is told that he won’t be welcome. This makes him want it all the more. It turns out that the professor only teaches a very select group and those students only study with that professor. They are distant from all the other students. Above them. Richard becomes a little obsessed with them and engineers a conversation. Slowly he is allowed in and he signs up to solely study with the professor. He becomes part of the clique.
Richard is drip fed information from this group about what they do though they seem to welcome him. To be fair Richard is secretive himself. He doesn’t want these people to know that he is poor, that his mother wears pant suits, that he is at the college on financial assistance.
Part I of the story leads us to the killing of Bunny, one of the students in this clique, part of this illustrious group who appear to outsiders to be the best of friends and yet those responsible for killing him. Part II follows what happens after the murder, the search for Bunny and the effects that the murder has on the members of the group and the friends and family of Bunny.
This book was fascinating and I have to say that it had a noticeable effect on my dreams on at least two of the nights as I read it. I found it easy to pick up and hard to put down and its one of the few books I managed to read for more than a few minutes once in bed at night. I think what was vaguely terrifying about it is that it is so very real, you’re not quite sure that you wouldn’t be in Richard’s shoes. If something is denied to you for an unfair, seemingly exclusionary reason, don’t you want it more, or just plain want it when you might not have been that bothered? If everyone was rich around you but seemed like ok folk would you pretend to be rich too? To save the embarrassment? If someone told you their plans and then told you you need not be there would you engineer it so you were there, because you don’t want to be left out? Even if you didn’t push him… And then what? Once one person has threatened the group what are the implications of someone else threatening the group? How long do you have to deal with the fact that you murdered someone? What lengths do you go to to ensure that you aren’t found out?
This book answers the call of the herd mentality and is a stern warning to take a step back, to remember your own morals, to do what is right no matter who is looking, even if no-one is.
I have to highly recommend this book and give it 5/5 which means it’s a book you should read in your lifetime. And if, like me, you read it in the 90’s then re-visit it. In fact I think the message is so important that perhaps we should meet here again in 5 years.