Death among the Barbours
I was 18 when The Secret History swept the world in paperback in 1993. It was a bad age for an encounter with Donna Tartt’s first blockbuster. If I’d been a few years older, I might have thought it a reasonably honourable inhabitant of the borderlands between commercial fiction and writing that’s better than it could get away with being. If I’d been a few years younger, my experience of it might have got mixed up, as evidently happened to lots of people, with the excitements of early adolescence. A friend who read it at 14 got so carried away by its hormonally atmospheric, audience-flattering schtick that she can’t speak about it now, she says, without a shiver of embarrassment. That seems better to me than my own response, which was to feel smug about having perceived that a story about murder via Bacchic frenzy among preppy students in Vermont was somewhat trashy. Who needed this frothy stuff when you could get the lowdown on Apollo and Dionysus from weighty sources like Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae? It was further evidence of my superior sensibility, rather than of any storytelling skills of Tartt’s, that I’d raced through the novel one Saturday without leaving my room.