The reason? As I wrote back then, I was determined to read nothing that came with a deadline for filing copy tucked between its pages: nothing, that is, I had earmarked for review.
What is a holiday, in the book industry, if not a break from the tyranny of publication dates? I took a sweeping look at the jumble of publisher’s proofs on my desk, and the pile of book-shaped post I hadn’t yet opened, and decided I would grab a classic on the go.
The company history of Penguin Books has been repeated often enough to earn modern fable status: in 1934, responding to the low-quality, overly expensive selection at Exeter St David’s train station book stall, publisher Allen Lane pioneered the paperback revolution, making good books attractive and affordable to ordinary workers on their commute – as they should be.
It was a Penguin book I selected in the end, rummaging through the shelves until my hand landed on Donna Tartt’s often-imitated but never bettered The Secret History. Having read it once already, back in my student days, I knew it was a winner, and had always intended to return to it.
An intelligent thriller, The Secret History tells the story of a tight-knit group of students of Greek, semi-isolated from the rest of their historic New England campus by the intensity of their lessons – and by snobbery.
Aspiring to the fates and furies of legend, their hedonism emerges not in the familiar drugs, sex and partying way of students – but in murder.
In what is, for my money, her very best novel, Tartt created a compelling, memorable group of co-conspirateurs. There is bumbling Bunny Corcoran, cut off from family fortune and reliant on others to pick up the tab for the lunches he shamelessly invites them to; wealthy, will never have to work Henry, dedicated to studying the ancient world to a degree of insanity; and narrator Richard, from Plano, California, who observes these rich kids with horror – and complicity.
Campus novels of recent years look a bit wet in comparison.