The Secret History
by Donna Tartt

Psi Peter Sisseck 2011


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September is back to school month so we’ve chosen a classic campus novel, Donna Tartt’s ground-breaking and much-imitated debut. it follows an elite group of eccentric students as they descend into murderous madness fuelled by Greek mythology. Helping me choose our #NovelPairings are Rebecca Palmer from Corney & Barrow and Simon Heafield from Foyles.

“As a matter of fact Charles did drink a lot,” confesses Richard Papen, with characteristic understatement. “We all did.”

Yes, they did. The Secret History has our booziest bibulous-o-graphy so far ranging from Beer to Whisky with everything in between including blue Margaritas and a very fine Chateau Latour. It’s a campus novel so you’d expect drinking. You don’t expect murder, an encounter with Dionysus or such a specular unravelling. Talk about a hangover.

The book’s narrator, Richard, has echoes of Charles Ryder from Brideshead Revisited—a young man abandoning beginnings he’s embarrassed by in search of sophistication. He flees Plano, California, arriving at the fictional Hampden College in Vermont and reinvents himself. A campus much like the one Tartt attended. There he basically falls in love with a group of five intensely eccentric Classics students: Henry, Bunny, Francis and the twins Charles and Camilla. This clique is under the spell of their charmingly enigmatic Classics professor, Julian Morrow.

The novel opens with the FBI discovering Bunny’s body. What follows is not so much a whodunit as why. Bunny knew something he shouldn’t about the group and threatens to expose them. Their need to silence him intersects with their desire to escape the mundane – to experience a Bacchanal: “to escape the cognitive mode of experience, to transcend the accident of one’s moment of being, to lose one’s self utterly. We tried everything. Drink, drugs, prayer, even small doses of poison.”

“Happily for us, Dionysus is the god of wine as well as theatre,” says Rebecca from Corney & Barrow. “I’ve shortlisted three wines – one for each stage of this incredible book.”

To begin we taste Gathering 2013 by the Lane. “This wine teeters on a tightrope,” says Rebecca. Sometimes the citrus sauvignon comes forward, sometimes it’s the more savoury Semillon character.”

“It’s a real echo of how it all begins,” says Simon from Foyles. “All the tension is in there. Richard could have walked away.” But a white wine for a book so steeped in blood?

Next up is richly spiced Psi 2011 by Peter Sisseck. “It’s 100% tempranillo,” says Rebecca. “Psi is the Greek letter shaped like a tulip and it’s referenced by Charles.” It’s deep but not unfathomable—more of a shadow on a sunny afternoon. “I can imagine Julian serving it at a tutorial,” says Simon.

We end, as the novel does, in very dark territory. “Barolo La Tartufaia Giulia Negri 2010 is complicated,” says Rebecca. “And so is this story—the motivations, the consequences.” I fear this Barolo is too big. “It’s complex but not subtle,” says Simon.

The great charm of The Secret History is the sense of being let in on, well, a secret – of being admitted to this elite clique and swept along. Would you – could you – imagine going as far as them? The Psi buzzes with their youthful energy but gives us a hint of darkness to come. It’s all there waiting to happen in the glass and on the page. So it has to be our #NovelPairing.

To borrow Julian’s toast to his charmed doomed students: “Live forever!”