Richard tells his story from many years before, of one year in the exclusive and small Hampden College in Vermont. Although it immediately opens up with a murder of one of their own and who does it, it is the subsequent deterioration of each of the characters dealing with this horrible event, their social isolation, and the subsequent end to their actions that is thrilling, haunting, and Gothic. It's a book that makes me stamp my foot and wonder where the heck I was when this was first published in 1992.
Recently accepted as a college transfer to Hampden College, Richard has left his life in California without regrets. While a dramatic change in environment and surroundings, compared to his home life led by an overbearing and verbally abusive father, it is the right choice to leave. With a background in Greek, Richard becomes intrigued by the local Classics teacher, Julian, and the five students who exclusively study with him. Obsessed, yet initially denied acceptance, Richard is then invited to join after helping them with a challenging Greek translation. Soon, he is caught up in the lives of the group, and is stunned by their combined family wealth, which causes Richard to feel more secure in lying about his family and his past, glossing over his public school attendance and opting for wealthy boarding schools as his source of education. He never expects that he would soon find himself embroiled within the murder of Edmund "Bunny" Corcoran, a fellow classmate. No mystery here; we are told immediately who is killed and by whom. It's the subsequent breakdown, the psychological decay each of the characters experience following the murder that is the source of suspense.
In the group are twins Charles and Camilla (this was written in 1992, well before current British royalty) who are orphaned at a young age; Francis, whose aunt's country home is the scene of many of their parties; Henry, the linguistics genius who seems to have a tender hold as leader of the small group; and Bunny, while outgoing, is also extremely bigoted and ignorant. It is surprising that Bunny would ever be accepted into this elite grouping, especially since he really isn't one who excels in academics, and his spelling is horrendous. Could it be because Bunny's father is the President of a bank that helped garner acceptance to this select group? Is it Julian's interest in posh and fortune that overlooks Bunny's constant lack of money (his father never gives him a dime) simply because his father carries rank? With the other classmates also coming from a high pedigree, Richard decides to keep his chain-link, fenced-in, working class house in California a secret. When a hideous secret threatens the group, there is fear that Bunny might reveal it, and his lack of tact and control becomes a ticking time bomb that the group fearfully monitors. While the first half of the book is waiting for Bunny to reveal their secret, the latter half dives into the aftermath of his murder. The group fiercely does everything they can to maintain the perfect surface of their Classics group. Ultimately, it could be this quest of perfection that degrades friendships and shreds morality. It certainly is fitting that the small class studies Greek culture and language since all I could think as I read this was: Greek tragedy, anyone?
I've read several books this year that will make it on my Best Books Read in 2012 list, but I am fairly confident that, barring any other sleeper hits between now and the end of the year, this will make the top spot. The Secret History was first published in 1992 - again I ask, where was I when this came out? How did I miss it? I would have read this in college, the perfect time! It has all of the elements I love in a book: the compellingly haunting feel to its story, the quiet mystery and ultimate thriller that has been melded into the elusive and obscure literary class. How did I never come across this book that has been reprinted twelve times in the past twenty years?
The book certainly dives into extremely sensitive issues. There is rampant drug use and alcoholism, incest, and complete debauchery. It is forgiving of these several times over, but there is a quieter discussion of ego, power, and control. And we are really not reading about the most ethical of characters. I wouldn't even say that any of them are likable, save for maybe Francis? I'm not sure. But it is beautifully written, and so haunting that I couldn't put it down. I cannot wait to read her other book, The Little Friend.
Passages of Note (there were so many to choose from):
Henry, of course, had done marvelously. He didn't say so, but then he didn't have to. He, in some senses, was the author of this drama and he had waited in the wings a long while for this moment, when he could step onto the stage and assume the role he'd written for himself: cool, but friendly; hesitant; reticent with details; bright, but not as bright as he really was. (p.331)
No one had known him all that well but it was a strange feature of his personality that the less one actually knew about him, the more one felt one did. Viewed from a distance, his character projected an impression of solidity and wholeness which was in fact as insubstantial as a hologram; up close he was all motes and light, you could pass your hand right through him. If you stepped back far enough, however, the illusion would click in again and there he would be, bigger than life, squinting at you from behind his little glasses and raking back a dank lock of hair with one hand. (p.357)Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Inc.
Release Date: 10/16/1992
The Literary Amnesiac
The Literary Bunny
Things Mean A Lot
FTC Disclosure: I first checked this book out of my local Virginia Beach Public Library and then purchased the book to keep on my personal bookshelf.
About the Author
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