The Favourites: Ryan Sim on The Secret History

Words by Ryan Sim

Published on November 10, 2011


I originally picked up this book for two reasons.

The first was Donna Tartt’s well-documented association with Bret Easton Ellis, who I already loved, and who originally spurred my interest in writing. The second was its price. It had been released as one of those wonderfully designed Penguin Classics, in all of its orange glory.

I purchased the book without any expectations and I read it whilst travelling overseas. I was in Boston for about ten days. I’d go out and see the sights (their Museum of Art is fantastic), however the icy winds would soon drive me back to the hostel, and to Tartt’s amazing prose. I read the entire book during my time at the hostel – in between getting tattooed in the basement and eating at the amazing Back Bay café The Other Side.

The book was made all the more striking to me, having just struggled through On The Road.

The Secret History  haunts me. Not the story, although it is haunting enough, and the characters still seem like people I used to know, and hope not to run into on the street. The way Tartt writes is a milestone for me. What she achieved with The Secret History  is what I one day hope to achieve. A contemporary story that is huge in scope, told with an almost classical diligence in its use of the English language. The way she maintained a vivid image character of the narrator Richard whilst painting a striking picture of the world in which he lives – through all its changing seasons, and the characters’ travels from place to place is amazing to me. She never compromised Richard’s placid and reluctant persona for a minute, yet we lack nothing in reading this book.

I guess what sticks with me most about this book is its class. Through its murder, college-parties, orgies, witchcraft, more murder, implied incest, homophobia, and finally, suicide, it stays classy, for lack of a better term. What’s more is, when the story ends, it is truly finished. Once again, we lack nothing when we finish this book.

I suspect that it’s clear in reading this that I’m having trouble articulating the abstract ways in which I view this book. It’s hard to extract any one element to speak about it exclusively from any other part – everything feeds into everything else in such a unique way, especially for the story’s vastness (I mean “vast” sentimentally as well as temporally). I guess a good way to sum it up is how it left me. I felt accomplished, I felt like I had gained something from the journey – however I also felt strangely empty – haunted, as I said. Perhaps it was because I was so far from home, and alone, however my memories of Boston are not wrapped up in this book, or vice-versa.

When people say books have lives – that they breathe – I like to think the saying was inspired by Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.