Ten reasons why we love Donna Tartt's The Secret History

It starts with a murder, is obsessed with ancient Greece and creates the delicious illusion of being admitted to the most dangerous of confidences

• Discuss The Secret History with Donna Tartt at the Guardian book club

1. It starts with a murder. The novelist's first trick is also her best: in a prologue, her narrator, Richard Pappin, tells us of the murder of Bunny, a crime "for which I was partly responsible". He appears to have got away with it – and yet to be haunted by it. "This is the only story I will ever be able to tell." We will have to read on to find out how he could have done such a thing. Coleridge said that Shakespeare always made apprehension predominate over surprise, and this is what Donna Tartt does. As we read The Secret History, we don't so much wonder what might happen as worry about what will happen.

2. It is in love with Ancient Greece. Donna Tartt proves the truth of what literary parents piously tell their children: nothing can beat the Greek myths. The main characters believe so strongly in the power of these myths that they find themselves enacting one of them. But the novel, through its narrator, is also in love with Greek philosophy and history, with Homer and Plato. At the (fictional) university of Hampden it admits us to Julian Morrow's select class of Hellenophiles and allows us to commune with the most alluring civilisation of all.

3. It has all the best elements of the campus novel. The college where the novel is set is just the picture: white clapboard and green shutters, a clock tower and ivied brick, the autumn glow of Vermont. Everyone who has ever been to university loves this peculiar subgenre, in which we can relive our earliest years of pretend adulthood. But it appeals to non-graduate readers too. Gilded youth is set free to experiment and be absurd; high pretensions co-exist with human weakness. Usually this mixture is comic, but Tartt is clever enough to see its darker potential.

4. It has a classic lonely narrator. Richard Pappin is perfectly prepared to be entranced. Friendless and frustrated, without family support or sympathy, he arrives at university to look for a better life – especially of the spirit. A clever boy from nowheresville, he sets out to "fabricate a new and far more satisfying history". At Hampden he is intoxicated to find himself in the company of the five eccentric, conceited, clever undergraduates who study Greek together and seal themselves off from the rest of the students. He does not so much befriend them as project his hopes and fantasies upon them. So he narrates with the force of passion.

5. It is full of quotations. Within a couple of sentences Richard is quoting from Rimbaud (unattributed and untranslated). The book is liberally scattered with wise sayings in Latin and Greek – genuine fragments of antiquity that are as often mysterious as they are sagacious. You are leaving the sublunary world behind and entering a realm of literary and linguistic riches. Outside the novel's pages people are watching TV and talking in cliches, but within them you are in the company of the best that has been said and thought.

6. It has a charismatic master of ceremonies. At this university there is only one teacher of ancient Greek, Julian, who accepts only a small number of intellectually qualified students. Sardonic, brilliant and charismatic, he presides like some academic magus over the aspirations of the characters. "I hope we're all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?" he asks rhetorically, at the beginning of one of his highly unconventional classes. Richard and his companions are devotees of a cult, and Julian is the secular priest, endlessly witty, incisive and mocking.

7. It is obsessed with beauty. Tartt's narrator seems little interested in sex, but is readily intoxicated by beauty: human, natural, or poetic. The novel notices how important beauty is to us, yet how rarely anyone speaks of it. "Khalepa ta kala. Beauty is harsh." (In the ancient Greek, the words for "beauty" and "harsh" chime with each other.) This is "about the first sentence that I ever learned in Greek" and becomes a dictum for Richard. He comes to relish "beauty that shocks you", as Alexander Pope put it – beauty jolts us out of our boredom.

8. It believes in fate. As he looks back on his life, Richard notices all the apparently chance events that led him into the story that he is now telling. Everything is an accident (he applies to Hampden because an old brochure for it falls out of a jacket pocket), and yet telling the story makes it appear destined. "Psychology is only another word for what the ancients called fate," declares Julian. The narrative is shaped by this ancient conviction.

9. It is possessed by Dionysos. Friedrich Nietzsche knew that Greek tragedy was made out of the clash between the powers of reason-giving Apollo and enrapturing Dionysos. Richard learns from his companions and his teacher that the roots of wisdom are not just in Greek rationality but also pagan ecstasy. DH Lawrence would have appreciated what Tartt has learned from the god of wine and ritual madness. Get out there in the woods and rip your clothes off! Richard and his clever, foolish fellow students are would-be bacchantes who learn all about the dangers of this allegiance.

10. It lets you in on secrets. Tartt's title is a cracker, not least because it is true to the appeal of the book. We, like Richard, are being given membership of a select group. One secret is given away at the book's opening, only because we can be assured that others lie in store. Every one of the millions who have read The Secret History has the delicious illusion of being admitted to the most dangerous of confidences. It is as if her every reader is the first and only one to read it.

• Donna Tartt discusses The Secret History with John Mullan at the Guardian Book Club on 19 November, 7pm, The Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7. Tickets £12.


John Mullan

The GuardianTramp

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