Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.
The Secret History is one of those books that appears in every reading list ever. A modern classic. So of course, I've been wanting to read it for what feels like forever, but I really didn't know what I was getting myself into. It was better than I was expecting: grisly murders, paranoid college students, and luscious campus and country descriptions.
The Secret History is very much like a fairy tale where Richard Papen, our (quite bland) protagonist, goes from rags to riches by virtue of a miracle - or a murder, in this case. He tries to escape the commonalities of Plano, California by joining a tight-knit, elitist group of Greek students and faking a tragic and romantic character. As in any fairy tale, he gets more than what he bargained for when he's admitted to the inner sanctum. The glamour leaves way to an ugly mess.
But in no way is this novel a mystery, as I thought I was. It's not even a whydunnit. From the start, the reader knows that Richard and his group of friends have killed Bunny Corcoran. The novel is not an explanation of why they did it, which becomes fairly obvious by the middle of the book, but of the transformations that occur within the characters to be able to commit a crime and to regard the murder as the natural and inevitable consequence of their actions. Each of the college students embodies a vice and the final death of Henry is only the fulfillment of fate. We are, in fact, reading a greek tragedy in the form of a contemporary novel.
The story is deliberately written as atemporal, although drug use and the scarce pop culture references point to the late 80s or early 90s as a setting. This is what lends the story a universal feeling, a prerequisite for being labeled as classic. Although the setting is very particular, the story explores friendship, love, jealousy, atavic fear and specially the dichotomy of restraint vs. freedom - all of them universal themes. The supernatural tinges only enhance those themes.
Verdict: 4/5. It's a manipulative narrative with a very satisfactory ending.