Whenever I learn that a supposed bookworm hasn’t yet read a Donna Tartt novel I’m first astonished (but her books have been translated into thirty languages, sold millions of copies worldwide and been shortlisted for major awards – how could not one have found its way onto your reading pile?), then pitying (you poor thing, you don’t even realise what you’re missing) and finally envious. What I wouldn’t give to settle down in my reading chair late one evening, storm raging beyond dark windows, half-drunk glass of cab sav beside the table lamp, and read The Secret History’s (1992) opening sentence for the first time:
The snow on the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
Being a Donna Tartt fan requires patience. Friends complain about the years Isobelle Carmody has taken to write the next book in the Obernewtyn Chronicles. That’s nothing. Carmody at least produces other novels in the meantime. Tartt’s most recent novel, The Goldfinch (2013), was eleven years in the making. So with fresh material finally on the shelves, it’s timely to consider why Tartt is indeed worth the wait.
Tartt herself is something of a character. With her trademark dark bob, tailored men’s suits and habit of quoting T.S. Eliot in casual conversation, she’s a recluse with quirks and eccentricities that only an author could contrive. Born in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1963, she was a sickly child, and so small she was dressed in doll’s clothes. Even now as an adult, she’s tiny – ‘the exact same size as Lolita’, she famously pointed out. A voracious bookworm from the get-go, Tartt grew up reading Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson, which perhaps explains the dark bent of her fiction.
After a year at the University of Mississippi, she transferred to Bennington, an exclusive liberal arts college that according to Elizabeth Wurtzel, writing jealously in Harvard’s The Crimson in 1987, was ‘the rural refuge for rich flakes,’ but ‘also seems the place to go if you want to graduate a published writer.’ Man Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai and Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage are graduates, as are Bret Easton Ellis and Jill Eisenstadt, who, along with Tartt, would become known as the Bennington Brat Pack – famous for producing bestselling novels before their thirtieth birthdays.
Following graduation, Tartt moved to New York City, where she largely relied on the support of family and friends while she finished The Secret History, recalling ‘I was too poor to have the manuscript Xeroxed. I kept it hidden in my apartment in several piles so that if there was a fire it wouldn’t all go up.’ Ellis showed the manuscript to his agent, and there the fairytale every creative writing student dreams of began. A bidding war earned Tartt a six-figure advance and The Secret History became an overnight sensation – translated into 27 languages and having, to date, sold in excess of five million copies.
The Secret History begins with a crime: college student Bunny Corcoran is dead and his friend Richard Papen wants to confess his part in the murder. What unfolds is the story of an unusually intimate clique of classics students. While their peers are experimenting with sex, drugs and artistic expression, they are out in the woods, practicing ancient rituals and believing themselves reborn into a higher, more pure state of being. From the fringes of the group, Richard observes the growing distance between his friends and the wider world, and the increasing threat Bunny poses to their circle. In his narration, horrific acts are rendered strangely beautiful and his friends, for whom murder is just one among many sins, are recast as tragic heroes. It’s a precocious first work of secrets and repressed desires, spanning more than 600 pages and drawing inspiration from a great breadth of literature and philosophy, from the writings of Plato and Aristotle to those of Dostoyevsky, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allen Poe, T.S. Eliot and former classmates Ellis and Eisenstadt, to name just a few.
After her astounding debut, the literary world held its breath in anticipation of what Tartt would do next, and again, she took them by surprise: she disappeared. Rumours spread in the absence of her second book: she had writers’ block, she was a one-hit wonder, she’d given up. Still, she maintained her silence. It was not until 2002, a full decade after The Secret History’s release, that Tartt returned to the public eye with her second novel, The Little Friend.
Here Tartt introduced readers to her home state of Mississippi, as it was when she grew up there in the 1970s. As in The Secret History, The Little Friend opens with a death. Nine-year-old Robin Dufresnes is found hanged from a tree in his parents’ backyard on Mother’s Day. For twelve years his murder remains a mystery. Then, with her father in Nashville, her mother in a medicated daze and the whole summer stretching before her, Robin’s little sister, Harriet, decides to hunt down her brother’s killer. However, what begins as a child’s game soon turns sinister as Harriet is drawn away from the backyard into the seedy underworld of the Deep South at a time of great social unrest.
In The Little Friend Tartt proves herself a true Southerner, not just in her choice of setting, but in living up to the South’s reputation for producing great Gothic storytellers. Her narrative is dark with Gothic detail: twelve-year-old Harriet in her living room late at night, watching her neighbours through the crosshairs of a gun, her dead brother breathing behind her; a blackbird’s corpse decomposing on the road, feathers lifted in the breeze. But the chill factor is offset by Tartt’s choice of protagonist. Harriet is ‘not disobedient, exactly, or unruly, but she was haughty, and somehow managed to irritate nearly every adult with whom she came in contact.’ She strides through the story, determined to discover Robin’s killer, giving To Kill a Mockingbird’s Scout more than a run for her money.
Though The Little Friend is not, as many readers hoped, The Secret History Revisited; it is, in my opinion, a technically stronger book, if only for not so overtly drawing attention to the fact that Tartt is better read than the rest of us. Her efforts were rewarded with a nomination for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and this seemed to confirm that it was okay for her to keep her readers waiting, which she then did again, for the next eleven years. With two very different books to her name, no one quite knew what Tartt would write next.
The Goldfinch is named for Carel Fabritius’s 1654 painting, but before you panic and rush back to university for an art history degree, this is a novel about why art matters, and the (often destructive) power its beauty holds over us, rather than about the painting itself. Theo Decker is just thirteen when he and his mother become victims of a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Theo miraculously survives the explosion that kills his mother and many others, and out of the fire and dust, he smuggles ‘The Goldfinch’. He initially intends to return it, but as he watches his mother’s things being packed up and sold, and is himself eventually sent away from his home and friends in New York to live with his father in Las Vegas, the painting glows brighter – the only source of beauty and solace remaining to him. As the years pass, Theo falls further under the painting’s thrall, willing to do whatever is necessary to remain its keeper.
That Tartt is a Dickens devotee is more than evident in this sprawling epic. The novel is peppered with the kind of colourful characters Dickens was famous for: Borris, Theo’s best friend, thief and Tartt’s answer to the Artful Dodger; Pippa, fellow survivor, slow and swaddled with trauma and the great unrequited love of Theo’s life; Hobie, a gentle giant of an antiques dealer; Mrs Barbour, Theo’s sometime carer, broken open by grief and hiding in a lamplit room surrounded by knickknacks.
Though Tartt’s work is often set apart from the nihilistic, drug-addled narratives of her fellow Bennington Brat Packers, in The Goldfinch, she proves the connection. In a particularly vivid passage she describes how Theo squanders his adolescence:
…miserable bursts of I Hate Everyone and I Wish I was Dead, months grinding by…haven’t been to school in three days and it’s Friday already, my life in haiku, I am in a state of semi-zombie, God we got trashed last night like I whited out sort of, we played a game called Liar’s Dice and ate cornflakes and breath mints for dinner.
In fact, Theo’s self-destructive voyage into a moral wasteland of drugs, theft and forgery – reflected in the literal wasteland of strip malls, lonely cul-de-sacs and the endless expanse of desert, and later society gatherings in excessively lavish ballrooms – could be straight out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, if not for the ever-present glow of ‘The Goldfinch’ lighting every page.
In both the juxtaposition of the beautiful and the banal, of high and low culture and the overlap between the two, Tartt returns to a familiar theme: beauty is not something sweet and nice. According to Hobie it ‘alters the grain of reality’, inspires destruction and demands sacrifice. As Henry Winter notes in The Secret History, ‘Death is the mother of beauty.’ To which Richard Papen elaborates: ‘We want to be devoured by it, to hide ourselves in that fire which refines us.’ Though a great part of the appeal of a Donna Tartt novel lies in her appropriating of Aristotle’s idea ‘that objects such as corpses, painful to view in themselves, can become delightful to contemplate in a work of art’, it is not the only reason, nor I believe the primary reason, her books are so cherished by millions of readers.
In a recent interview with Kirsty Wark for BBC Four’s The Review Show, Tartt said she wanted to give her readers that childhood feeling of breathlessly turning page after page, greedy to learn what happens next while still awarding each sentence the weight it deserves. But the link to childhood in her work runs deeper than that. Her novels, which all feature adolescent protagonists, bear more than a passing resemblance to much-loved children’s stories, only darker and more sinister, the thrill factor amped up for an adult readership. The Greek class, whispering as they lie in wait for Bunny amidst the ferns are the twisted older siblings of those ruddy-cheeked students who laugh and tease each other on forest rambles and stay up for midnight feasts in Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest School Girl novels. Harriet and Hely’s search for little red Robin’s killer is neighbourhood Nancy Drew, and Theo, orphaned and charged with an enchanted object is not dissimilar to Harry Potter with his magical scar (in fact, Boris nicknames him Potter) – the boy who lived who flirts unashamedly with death.
But perhaps the most simple, seductive quality of Tartt’s novels is the deadly secret at each one’s heart. They’re the kind of secrets that leave their keepers mad with terror and lure them, like a stranger offering sweets, away from the life they might have lived, on journeys as strange as they are extraordinary. Richard Papen warns us, ‘At one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.’ To draw a Stevenson reference, it is these death marks upon otherwise plain worlds that give Tartt’s stories their eerie charge and keep readers turning the pages late into the night. This is why we wait, because when Tartt returns ten, fifteen, twenty years from now, it will be to whisper, ‘Psst, come closer, I have a secret to share.’