The Secret History

The Secret History, published in 1992, is the debut novel of Donna Tartt. It’s written from the point of view of Richard Papen, the main character.

At the start of the story, Richard leaves his hometown in California to attend Hampden College, a college for wealthy, elite young adults. Having studied Ancient Greek in high school and loved it, he tries to enrol in the Ancient Greek class at Hampden but is told that it’s unlikely he’ll be accepted. This is because there’s only one Classics teacher who only accepts a limited number of students (five) for the Ancient Greek class, and the class is already full. But Richard manages to persuade the teacher, whose name is Julian Morrow, to let him join the class. Richard quickly finds that Julian is trying to breed intellectual elitism into his students.

Richard very quickly becomes fascinated by his classmates, who are each eccentric in their own unique way. They are also removed from the rest of the school population, and also have bizarre and slightly dangerous reputations, like the Greek scholars they’re trying to emulate. Richard becomes fascinated by two of the other students in particular: Henry Winter, an intelligent student who is the unofficial leader of the group; and Edward “Bunny” Corcoran, whose obnoxious and crass behaviour often causes tension. When Bunny discovers that the group (minus he and Richard) has murdered a stranger in their intellectual pursuits and strangeness gone wild, it’s Henry who proposes the they should kill him to keep him quiet.

And kill him they do.

Bunny’s murder is mentioned right at the start of the novel, so it’s not a typical whodunit story. It’s in fact an inverted detective story that delves into the reasons why Richard, Henry, and the other students kill Bunny, and how they deal the consequences.

The Secret History reminded me a lot of The Catcher in the Rye, mainly because Richard resembled, in my mind, Holden Caulfield. He’s not very trustworthy, often telling lies and creating excuses – traits that Holden possesses. But Richard does have a moral compass, shown when he experiences shock and guilt in his part of Bunny’s murder.

Richard and the other students also take drugs, drink excessive amounts of alcohol, and often don’t sleep unless they are incredibly sleep-deprived or have taken sleeping pills. Richard and Bunny are the only ones who are not rich and/or receiving trust fund payments.

You might think that I have a rather low opinion of The Secret History. But I actually have a high opinion of it. It’s really well-written. Tartt has a very conversational style, which I like. The dialogue is realistic as well, and there are good, lengthy descriptions of places, which I like. And even though most of the things Richard and the others do are questionable, they are fundamentally unique, each with their own personal history – they’re not just two-dimensional characters.

4/5


Words by Callum J. Jones

Photo by Dogancan Ozturan on Unsplash

IMG_0080Creative, honest, and reliable, Callum J. Jones loves writing fiction and non-fiction. In his spare time, he likes to read, watch movies and TV shows, and go on walks.

You can follow him on Facebook (@callum.j.jones.writer) and Twitter

One Morning on a Melbourne Rooftop

When Simon vomited the grief of his father’s death into a plastic bag on the rooftop of a Melbourne hostel, I couldn’t help but consider what a poignant narrative climax it would make. I was standing in fog freckled with security-light orange, hiccupping Smirnoff bile when he moved to the low wall by the edge. Ben ran after him; we were terrified he’d fall or throw himself over. He was trembling and wet-dog snivelling, but he hadn’t been stuck in his end-of-the-world grief all night. Not like he was then.

It was 2008 and we were twenty. Far too young, really, for that kind of grief. The weekend escape had been concocted just days before, the kind of flyaway ‘why not’ you can get away with between university semesters when there’s nothing but long nights in friends’ backyards to fill the space of days. We’d started late in the afternoon with a bottle of vodka and pink and orange slushies from the 7Eleven. We played brain freeze and a game of Presidents and Assholes with Mexican girls who were in town to see the Pope for World Youth Day. It hadn’t been a remarkable evening except that he’d been smiling through most of it. Sitting in the hostel corridor floor, his knees didn’t seem to jut so much from his too-big pants and he had that goofy look like he used to have, back when we’d welt our fingertips from too much Guitar Hero and fall asleep at 4am amongst soda cans and melted M&Ms. So instead of worrying about him, as I had for days, weeks, months, really, I’d been mentally composing a gothic piece set in the Old Gaol just over the road. Flood lights cast shadows on brick beyond the windows and I watched for spectral faces behind the bars — I’d had strange shivers in a cell the day before, one renowned for its paranormal visitations, and there was a story in it, I knew.

When we said goodnight to the Mexicans, I should have expected the hug that began with a moon-smile and ended in his fingers clenching tight to my back, that silent quiver in his bones. That he’d slip through my arms to a bundle on the floor. And that my own heart would break, again, because I couldn’t heal his.

We came up to the roof and he pushed his fingers firmly against me: ‘Fuck off.’

But Ben and I crept up anyway, pressed our ears against the door. We listened to the thud of fold-up chairs, benches scattering against the concrete. The gravelled roar of his yell. That’s when we rushed. We found him standing still, his beanpole silhouette striking against the broad grey of the gaol.

‘I’m gonna be sick.’

Ben ran with a plastic bag pulled from his pockets. The heave of vomit was spectacular. That’s when he stumbled to the low wall by the edge. When I thought he might jump.

The ghosts next door disappeared.

He looked up at us and a shift came over him. Something in his eyes. He peered over the edge, looking down at the wet street: a cat curling around a lamppost, the short white apartment building opposite. He rocked back on his heels and grinned. Then he threw it. The wobbling bag, strangely graceful in its own way, sailed across the street and landed on slanted tiles above a porthole window. The liquid threatened the plastic, then after a tense moment, rested.

A strange stillness passed.

‘Fucking hell,’ said Ben. ‘That was beautiful.’

Simon gripped us, tipped his head back and, throaty with catharsis, he laughed.

It was difficult not to see the narrative potential.

 


Art by Rhianna Carr
Words by Lauren Butterworth

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALauren Butterworth is a writer, academic and editor with creative work published in a variety of outlets including MeanjinVerity LaWet InkMidnight Echo and more. She is co-director of The Hearth, a readings event that aims to platform exciting local voices in a space that nurtures creativity, conversation and ideas. She is also a host and producer of the podcast Deviant Women which tells the stories of women who dare to break the rules and subvert the system. During the day, she teaches at Flinders University and is editor at MidnightSun Publishing.

You can find Lauren at laurenbutterworth.com and deviantwomenpodcast.com