Audiobooks, ratings, reviews (beta)

The Secret History


Author: Donna Tartt –

Publisher: HarperAudio –

Genre: Literary Fiction –

Overall rating: 4/5 –

Writing: 3/5 –

Duration: 22:03 (long) –

Narrator: Donna Tartt –

Narrator/performance: 5/5 –

Impressions: 4/5 –

Performance errors: 0/5 –

Complexity/reading level: 4/5 –

Audience: Adult


I rarely feel compelled to write a longer review, especially when it is unfavorable. Yet this book is so full of weak points that it would feel strange not to list just a few of them.

However, before I start I must point out that the Author is an excellent reader and narrator. It is quite astonishing how well she performed her famous novel here. I was able to finish the book mostly thanks to this great performance.

“You don’t feel a great deal of emotion for other people, do you?” – asks Henry. The question is addressed to the narrator by the smartest character in the book near its end. Well, according to ProseCraft, The Secret History is written in 202,166 words. These words express a lot of thoughts ascribed to the narrator, such as these: “The gesture was, to me, tremendously touching and all of a sudden I realised I had been wrong about these people. These were good people, common people; the salt of the earth; people whom I should count myself fortunate to know.” There is an added layer that the narrator was supposed to be on ecstasy while formulating that thought. Still, the point stands that the Author made an effort of producing a long novel with a participating narrator who is a thoughtful and wise young artist, passing as a scholar, yet at the end there is a suggestion that he is a psychopath. Why? What does it add to the story? Was it announced anywhere? Did anything lead to it? What did it result in? What did it produce? I believe it is not a crafty and intriguing literary mystery. I see it as a bluff.

The lack of cause and effect, of a plot that would make sense from any psychologically sound and coherent perspective, is felt throughout the novel. I find it odd that one can add so much beautiful prose over such a silly story. I will explain why it strikes me as such.

I may be just an ordinary lawyer from Eastern Europe with a decent education. In fact, I was familiar with basic Latin, ancient history and philosophy when I was about 15 years old and continued to read Plato, Marcus Aurelius or even Apuleius in my adult years. I do not feel special because of it. It did not occur to me to become a cold propagandist just because Plato praised propaganda in his later work. Some ancient texts, however, did inspire me, brought me solace or even changed some of my habits. The basic skill one develops when acquiring education is not translating ancient text quicker than Google Translator. It is about being able to assess content and take from it – not randomly, not indiscriminately, but critically and with purpose.

There is another novel about bad influence of culture, titled “Foucault’s Pendulum”, by Umberto Eco (213,323 words). I read it around the time when I studied Latin, ancient history and philosophy. Reading the novel until its rewarding end made me rather proud. As far as I remember, Umberto Eco does not toy with the idea of being rewarded by “finally feeling something” after murder. He warns against over-intellectualizing – all the while explaining complex interlocking ideas. He shows the beauty of the common experience and ordinary life’s pleasures – using Europe’s rich history as a background. He does not show the door in the form of self-harm, nor does he present constant depression as the only future ahead.

I was fortunate enough to encounter a glimpse of Ancient Greek rites on the Polish soil, in the Centre for Theatre Practices “Gardzienice” near Lublin. All works the Theatre Centre produces are based upon serious study of art, predominantly ancient art. Gardzienice has been around for many years, its founders and participants continue to develop their skills. The experience of seeing one of their performances is unforgettable but it certainly is not dangerous. The point of art is to feel your way through the extreme and the atrocious as the experience will potentially make you able to live a peaceful existence and appreciate beauty. Why the Author of The Secret History turned this basic premise inside out puzzles me in an unpleasant way. I, quite simply, cannot understand the point of it. More than that, I feel that the story is harmful. Some important principle was broken and all magic was lost but it was lost in a disguised manner, beneath a river of pretty words. Perhaps the story comes down to the condemnation of too much money, alcohol, tobacco and drugs at a young age. But perhaps not. If so, that would be a rather boring subject. The novel asks a lot of questions I am not inspired to investigate and there is that.

Donna Tartt, The Secret History, audiobook cover, showing a marble statue face in detail

I did not like the cover much either. It suggests a much simpler, cleaner story. The cover does not represent the content well and is not pleasant to the eye as there is too much detail to process. Which character is it supposed to represent? Which idea? Again, questions which do not seem to lead anywhere.

Cover Photo by June O on Unsplash