Review: The Lava in My Bones, by Barry Webster

>>Published: September 2012

>>Finally got around to it: October 2012

When Sam woke the next morning, he lurched upright in bed. Why had a man’s body brought him pleasure? Was he himself a man? Two men together was pointless—they can’t produce babies. What’s happened to logic? Does science have anything to do with this? With a flash of panic, Sam thought: the world is still dying and I’m doing nothing about it.

That week Sam ate rocks every day; he couldn’t resist their beckoning curvaceousness, their ribald density and earthy flavour. They swelled his libido, and Franz ate rocks with him. He became accustomed to Franz’s maleness, the deep voice vibrating the chest cavity, the hardness of his eyebrow-ridge, wiry hair curling in unexpected places, and the raw apple scent of his groin.

***

Luscious and positively dripping with style (and honey), Barry Webster’s The Lava in My Bones is a frank, often poetic exploration of sexuality, maturity, family, and abandonment. Divided into six parts, the novel shifts between differing perspectives, writing styles, and overarching metaphors to deliver a sweeping tale that exists somewhere in the cross section between magical realism and the science of the natural world.

Sam, the primary protagonist, is a geologist on academic assignment in Zurich. A perfunctory creature by nature, Sam, though a scientist, is driven by an imagination that colours his world in such convincing ways he is sometimes unable to discern the difference between what’s real and what isn’t. He frequently loses himself to doubt and ever-deepening questions as to the nature and purpose of his being—as an individual, and more specifically, as a sexual creature who, until his time in Zurich and a chance encounter with an artist named Franz, believed himself to be heterosexual.

Meanwhile back home in Labrador, where Sam grew up, his sister Sue is dealing with troubles of her own. Since Sam abandoned her to suffer their parents alone several years prior to the start of the novel, Sue has begun sweating honey. It is literally bursting from her, seeping out from her pores, her follicles, indeed from every possible bodily exit from which a liquid can escape. As her involuntary sugary expulsion increases, Sue is treated as a pariah in their town—as a deviant of a sort not spoken of in conservative company.

Binding Sam and Sue’s fates are: Franz, Sam’s lover from Zurich who at first lusts for Sam and turns him onto the sensual pleasure of devouring rocks, then turns on him, betrays him, and ushers him away, back to Canada where he is deemed insane (rock eating just isn’t understood in some places) and confined to a mental institution; their mother, a religious, sexually reticent zealot who deems her children to be in need of salvation by way of flinging consecrated urine at them as if it were holy water; and their father, a quiet non-entity who, it is implied, once upon a time exploited his daughter’s expanding honey-based sexuality in nefarious fish-catching ways, and is in the present context of the story has abandoned his entire family in search of his true love—a mermaid that may or may not exist.

The narrative arc to Webster’s work is one of self-acceptance, and of confronting one’s demons, be they internally or externally represented—the latter being Sam and Sue’s mother, and the book’s primary antagonist. The different styles play well to this effect, elegantly portraying the differences between Sam and Sue as emotional (with Sam being the more esoteric and uncertain, and Sue, who is several years his junior, becoming the voice of strength and sexual assuredness he might never be), and the differences between the siblings and their mother as primarily ideological.

Both Sam and Sue are tasked with embracing specifically what it is that separates them from the relative norm of their rather enclosed communities. Sam’s segments, being the more idiosyncratic of the two siblings and prone to flights of imaginative fancy, are delivered in sharpened exchanges that highlight the surreality of his situation and the earth-based predilections he experiences during his affair with Franz. In contrast with that and the segment of text at the beginning of this review, Sue’s segment is more outwardly sensual and linguistically explicit:

Suddenly, honey gushed from my skin. It shot in waves from the pores in my scalp, filled my eyebrows, and flowed so thickly across my open eyes that the edges of Jimmy’s body wavered as if seen through the window of a car in a car wash. The honey had been damned up for so long that it now poured forth in quantities I’d never experienced. It streamed from the crease below my jaw, cascaded in sheets over my breasts, hung in rippling curtains from my forearms, and was like a waterfall tumbling from my vagina. The parched ground below became a foam-dappled honey quicksand that splattered onto my ankles and calves and stuck to the soles and sides of my feet.

The two siblings—the stone-swallowing hardness of masculinity and the soft, flowing femininity of a person more sugar and sweetness than blood—are contrasted as inversions of age and confidence and strength, with the younger guiding the hand of the older, sometimes overtly, to a better understanding of self.

Franz, meanwhile, is contrasted with their mother: he, the lover who opens Sam’s mind to possibilities not previously entertained; she, the paragon of righteousness, and arbiter of what’s deemed acceptable—of the norm and all who are represented therein.

Franz is complicit in Sam’s undoing, both offering to expand his mind, but also pushing him away when the affair between the two men breaks past the tidy little temporary affair Franz had hoped it would be and grows and festers as something bigger. This, of course, is commitment, and through commitment, Franz’s own fears and self-doubts are revealed—doubts which lead him on a journey of his own, to discover the “diamond” within, and to cast off the veneer of self he assumed, naively, to be accurate. However, through his explorations and the adoption of a female alter-ego named Veronika, he begins to see the world through suddenly opened eyes—forcibly opened, to the point where he, again, naively, assumes a degree of understanding, this time towards the struggles faced by woman in his environment. It’s a disingenuous change, one evident of a man so eager to feel like he belongs, either to a sub-culture or to an individual, that he forces the illusion of understanding without first doing the work required to attain it with any degree of integrity.

If Franz is the novel’s implied uncertainty and overwhelming desire to discover some sense of belonging, Sam and Sue’s mother is the heaving slab on concrete unwilling to move or be shaken from its old world ideals. Ever the pious, no matter how outmoded her views may appear to be, their mother is presented as the novel’s wall-breaking, overtly authoritarian familial disaster. Webster gives mother dear an omniscient narrator’s voice to add further fuel to the implication that, despite having a manufactured bird’s eye view of her children’s perceived sexual indiscretions and devilish wrongdoings, she knows nothing of them as emotional, caring creatures, categorically refusing to see them as individuals but only as flawed offspring in need of saving. Her growth, if one can call it that, is in her willingness to lie and manipulate and assault others—all in conflict with her piety—in order to do what she’s decided is right and proper for her children. The end she hopes and prays for is justified, no matter the cost. The literal monster that Sam has become in the novel’s second to last segment is the manifestation of the doubt and self-degradation she has instilled in him from his earliest days, and is in the end her undoing as well.

There’s much more to be said for the quality of Webster’s psychosexual fairy tale, much of it praise-worthy. The Lava in My Bones is an excellent companion to piece to another Arsenal Pulp novel, Amber Dawn’s Sub Rosa. Though the narratives differ greatly, the themes explored via magical realism feel compliant with one another. The imagery presented in this novel, coupled with Webster’s perfunctory, delicate, and strangely lyrical language, is like none other I’ve read this year. Sam and Sue’s contrasted journeys of sexual discovery and emotional maturity are often joyous affairs, well realized and carefully constructed.

Review: The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling

>>Published: September 2012

>>Finally got around to it: October 2012

“You’re standing for the council?” he blurted.

Simon slowly raised his eyebrows. One of the muscles in his jaw was twitching.

“Is that a problem?” he asked, in a voice that throbbed with aggression.

“No,” lied Andrew.

You’ve got to be fucking joking. You? Standing for election? Oh fuck, no.

“It sounds like you’ve got a problem with it,” said Simon, still staring straight into Andrew’s eyes.

“No,” said Andrew again, dropping his gaze to his shepherd’s pie.

“What’s wrong with me standing for the council?” Simon continued. He was not about to let it go. He wanted to vent his tension in a cathartic outburst of rage.

“Nothing’s wrong. I was just surprised, that’s all.”

“Should I have consulted you first?” said Simon.

“No.”

“Oh, thank you,” said Simon. His lower jaw was protruding, as it often did when he was working up to losing control. “Have you found a job yet, you skiving, sponging little shit?”

***

Let’s get the obvious out of the way, so there’s little question as to the baggage I may or may not bring into this review: I loved the Harry Potter series, from its meagre beginnings all the way through to the end. In fact, I’m one of the few I know who’d point to the final book in that series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, as the best and most satisfying of the bunch (barring the much-maligned 19-years-and-a-half-dozen-unfortunately-named-children-later coda). Since that series’ completion, there’s been much speculation to the type of work Rowling would do next—assuming she was to do anything and not simply hang up her spurs and walk into the sunset as one of the wealthiest writers the world has ever known. I feel this preamble is necessary, since so many reviews for Rowling’s first book written expressly for adults, The Casual Vacancy, have focused on whether or not this new title, which is as far removed from Potter as it could possibly be, is a worthy follow-up to the legacy Potter helped craft. Others have focused on the demands either Rowling or her publisher have made regarding quote approval and review embargos, equal parts annoyed and irritated by an author who has never seemed terribly fond of the media (something which, as a rather severe introvert, I feel sympathetic towards).

To be honest, I couldn’t care less about any of these factors. Taken on its own, The Casual Vacancy is an aggressively characterized page-turner that feels, in light of the current presidential election in America and the more-obvious-than-ever circus of bullshit, behind-the-back insults, and punditry pomp and circumstance, strangely prescient. It’s also at times hilarious, infuriating, and on one or two occasions, unexpectedly sad. It’s not without its share of minor flaws, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed the novel—enough to barrel through it in a single extended sitting.

Split into seven parts (a number the author seems mightily fond of…), The Casual Vacancy is, on the surface, a tale of small town political corruption. When mostly-beloved parish council member Barry Fairbrother dies of an aneurysm, the town of Pagford—a non-existent provincial British town where everyone is up in everyone’s shit on a consistent basis—is thrown into turmoil. Who will take Barry’s seat on the council? What will happen to the Fields and those who reside within? Who will snap and marry/fuck/kill their neighbour first?

With its large cast of characters—divided into the adults and parents of Pagford, and their often ignored, beaten and/or emotionally abused children—who flit in and out of each others’ lives with almost universal disinterest in the wellbeing of their fellow townsfolk, The Casual Vacancy plays at times as if someone’s continuously spinning a sinister version of The Benny Hill Show theme. Regardless of position or authority, the highly neurotic cast at times boils down to a collection of gossiping, sniping hens, each out to steal food from beneath the mouth of the others. For some, I feel, this might be the book’s largest sticking point: no one is lovable. In fact, few characters are even remotely likeable.

Howard Mollison, the most benignly detestable of the lot, wishes more than anything to cut loose the Fields and all associated with them—including an addiction clinic that means a great deal to at least one family in the book. He’s the conservative/republican of the lot, who looks to those suffering as partaking in “benefits” (the UK equivalent of welfare) wilfully, as if to cast deliberate spite on those who have homes and opportunities not afforded to all, for whatever reasons. With Barry Fairbrother dead, he has his chance—the opportunity to install someone he can sway to the council, so that he may make his rather unsympathetic power play with little to no pushback. Howard is, on some level, the focus of this tale, with both sides of the fight for the Fields either circling his sphere of influence (however limited the scope of a deli owner’s influence may be), or searching for weaknesses. Spiralling out from the Mollisons we meet family, co-workers, family and children of co-workers, council associates, recent Pagford imports who want nothing more than to escape Pagford for the brighter lights of London, and more than a few children and adults who skirt the line between stereotypical provincial British town and Baltimore-style projects living.

This last point regarding the projects is worth its own mention. The Casual Vacancy is most certainly not for kids. Please, parents, take heed this warning and don’t buy this for your kids simply because of the author’s pedigree: Rowling writes as authentically as she can, with respect to the language and slang used in such a setting. Little if anything is held back. That being said, it was a bit amusing to see the author cut loose and cast off certain young adult fiction restraints: it’s possible there’s seven books worth of the words “fuck” and “cunt” littering the pages of The Casual Vacancy, though little of it feels gratuitous or out of place.

With its large cast of characters and no single obvious protagonist through which we see the world, The Casual Vacancy employs a house-of-cards structure: it spends a great deal of time carefully positioning the various players, so that when the climax comes in the book’s final 100 pages, it reads like a chess board that’s been overturned in anger. Bookended by death, it follows strongly the rule of Chekhov’s gun—that an ailment, insecurity, or mistake in judgement introduced in the first act will somehow pay off in the third. Some of these moments are conveniences, but none so terribly overt that they feel inorganically shoehorned into place. Granted, I’m a sucker for narratives that feel intricately plotted, where all the little seemingly inconsequential things matter, to some degree great or small, when the final curtain drops. In this manner, Rowling’s narrative style greatly appeals to me—it embraces blockbuster film sensibilities in this way, using quite deliberate structure to overwhelm the possibility of sometimes-organic happenstance.

One’s enjoyment of the title may hinge on a few other factors worth mentioning. This is a darkly comic tale, as evidenced by the thoroughly hate-filled actions of the majority of the townsfolk, both young and old. There is emotional resonance to be had, but not in the caring, familial way some might want or expect from a title with Rowling’s name on the cover. It’s a bit of a difficult beast in this manner, one best looked at as one would a germ culture under a microscope—as a curious cross section of personalities exemplifying the edict of absolute power corrupting absolutely, no matter how small the scale of said power. The other element is in one’s appreciation of the novel’s DNA, which ranges from the Robert Altman film Gosford Park and its upstairs-guests-and-downstairs-servants dichotomy, and even The Simpsons episode “Wild Barts Can’t Be Broken,” in which the children of Springfield, as a middle finger to an unfair curfew they’ve been saddled with, begin a pirate radio station in which they divulge the most sordid secrets of their parents, to humiliate them and strip them of their authority. In The Casual Vacancy, it’s primarily through the town’s children—their actions, their behaviour towards others, and in their anonymous, scathing blog postings crucifying their parents—that we see the failings, inadequacies, and prejudices of their parents and their controlling obsessions.

A common complaint of Rowling’s past work has had to do with an overuse of descriptive language. Indeed her style has not changed much in that regard. The Casual Vacancy is certainly a tighter read than the later entries in the Harry Potter saga, with fewer sentences bogged down by unnecessary odds and ends. At times she tells when she needs to show, and a few of the more spoiler-heavy emotional beats don’t resonate as much as they could due to the large cast, which unfortunately limits how well we get to know each character on an intimate level. Apart from those minor quibbles (and my undying wish for Simon to have met a grisly, violent end at the hands of a wheat thresher), The Casual Vacancy is a strong novel with terrific breadth of voice.

Review: Sleeping Funny: Stories, by Miranda Hill

>>Published: September 2012

>>Finally got around to it: October 2012

We turn the pages back. Carlos says Gibson is pale so that the light can shine through him. Micheline says he needs a little more sun. She will take him to Florida, she says, when he is well enough to stand the drive. To me, he looks as vulnerable as those girls in high school whose hips jutted up against the pocket rivets of their jeans. The ones everyone always tiptoed around: a fracture waiting to happen. The world pressed in closer on those among us who were cushioned by flesh, as if that offered sufficient protection. Despite the skin and the veins, Gibson has hands that look big and capable. They look like hands that could have hung on. But there are things you can’t know from looking.

The first time my husband hit me, we were in the bathroom, so it was hard to tell whether the darker bruise was from Cy’s hand or from the edge of the sink I hit going down. I felt across the floor to see if I would find blood, but the tiles were dry. When I pulled myself up, I held onto the vanity and stood in front of the mirror as long as I could. The red was spreading under my skin, my cheek, and my forehead was swelling. It looked like it should hurt. I couldn’t even remember Cy’s fist on me. It was as if something had pushed its way out from the inside like a latent cancer. “This is how I look as a beaten woman,” I said. I tried it on like a uniform, and felt it settle on me like something I was always meant to wear.

***

An interesting thing happened to me while reading Miranda Hill’s debut collection, Sleeping Funny. I started to envision a small town in the middle of nowhere, like something out of a Tim Burton film: prim and precise, every hedge cut to the same height with the same car parked in the same driveway of every cardboard cutout house. The town changed as the years passed—from Gothic nineteenth century underpinnings, to post-World War II a flag-in-every-shop patriotism, to more modern day aesthetic flavours—yet remained forever apart, an island unto itself, carved from the world. The nine stories collected in this book are tinged with slightly off-colour characters—exaggerations, islands of their own neither here nor there, but relatable all the same.

In “The Variance”, an infection is moving through Glenmount Crescent, a Pleasantville stand-in of hyphenated this-meets-that families, white picket fences, and crab apples littering lawns and sidewalks. Michal, the matriarch of the recently moved-in Revivo-Smitherman family, is an albatross—an “other” who represents what Imogene and Adelaide and other mothers in the neighbourhood fear most: change.

“Apple” is about sex. Not just sex, but the worst sex a teenager can imagine: parental sex. Possibly the most magical story of the collection, the titular Apple is forced to bear witness to unending images of her parents and the parents of classmates engaged in intercourse. Going deeper (pun not intended), “Apple” is about the teenage imagination regarding sex, and beyond sex, the idea of procreation—romanticizing and planning the moment, not wishing one’s existence and self worth to be the result of a mere act of lust but of careful, calculated planning.

“Petitions to St. Chronic” is one of the strongest stories in this collection—it also happens to be the story that won Hill the Journey Prize. It’s a beautiful, lyrical piece mapping the parallels between severe depression and suicide, and acquiescence and spousal abuse: exploring the scars that are not so readily seen—not before it’s too late.

Following such a strong tale is unfortunately one of the weakest of the lot: “6:19”. A simple tale of a government employee tired of his hum drum routine, fantasizing about the seemingly idyllic existence of a woman who is not his wife tending a garden that is not his own as he watches from the window of his stopped train. On one hand, the main character is emotionally uninteresting—but on the other hand, such emotional reticence could be argued as a deliberate tactic, to further illustrate his inaction and how it has helped settle him into a life he no longer desires. Whatever the intent, I felt kept at arm’s length throughout this entry.

“Because of Geraldine” is a story of regrets, of second-bests in love and settling for a life that offers a great deal—a family, kids and a wife and love and happiness—but is missing that small taste of something… special. Because, “Maybe only those things that were left behind felt sad. Maybe our father would feel it too. And I tried to imagine what it would be like to be his second biggest regret.”

“Precious” is far and away the strongest of the collected stories. Both moving and unnerving, it depicts in much the same way as the aforementioned “Petitions to St. Chronic” scars that are nigh impossible to see. It is about expectations versus reality: the all-too common crime of parents, playing favourites with their children, harbouring unfair expectations on their offspring before they can even begin to realize their potential. The narrative alludes to the first-born, Alex, as being deficient in some way—disappointment accentuated when the impossibly perfect Kristi-Anne is brought into his world and he is pushed into the shadows, deliberately forgotten by his parents to disastrous results. The story’s final moments and the unexpected tragedy spurned from parental neglect offer the most emotionally accomplished beats the book has to offer.

In “Digging For Thomas”, a mother looks after her son following the war-time death of her husband in a small community where everyone knows everyone, and the death of a single person casts ripples from one end of the town to the other. Contrasting with “Precious” and “Petitions to St. Chronic”, the mother in “Digging For Thomas” is scarred, visibly, for all to see, though there is not a cut anywhere on her. The tragedy she’s endured is known and understood by all, though commentary—and eye contact—is kept at a minimum, as if death were an indecency better left unspoken.

“Rise: A Requiem” is the most unconventional, and also the most ineffective story in the collection. Written as the 1889 testimony of Enoch Carlisle, former Reverend of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, the story details horrors done in the name of medicine that might be construed as villainy, or as a miracle without explanation. Either way, the theme presented is a foreboding one: the apocalypse is a mortal life, and the greater of evils belongs to men.

“Sleeping Funny” follows a Lorelei and Rory Gilmore-like mother-daughter pair: the still-clinging-to-the-past Clea, and her self-sustaining child, Minnie, who is clearly Clea’s emotional rock. Leaving a never-ending string of dead fish in her wake, Clea has allowed her life to lapse into a coma following the death of her father. When elements of her past force her to examine mistakes and choices made, Clea learns that though she has not necessarily moved on from her past, her past has moved on from her, and it’s up to her whether or not she wants to catch up with it and start living her life again.

Hill’s writing is, to use one of my favourite words, layered. Her imagery is strong throughout this collection; every sentence has a purpose, a reason for existing. Everything about the stories presented in Sleeping Funny feels carefully constructed, as if little was left to chance. The consequence of that, whether intentional or not, is the previously mentioned island effect: the feeling that these stories exist in a highly manicured world of visual cues and delicate, premeditated aesthetic choices. Keep in mind this is by no means a complaint. Sleeping Funny is one of the strongest short story collections I’ve read this year. Hill’s choices, however careful they may or may not have been, go a fair distance in creating the feeling of a historical artefact—a village tome united by its scars, by its resistance to change, throughout time. Even “6:19” and “Rise: A Requiem”, though not the strongest narratives in the collection, are engaging, textured examinations of individuals in strange, potentially unexplainable circumstances. However, it is on the strength of “The Variance”, “Petitions to St. Chronic”, “Precious”, and “Sleeping Funny” that this collection receives my utmost recommendation.

Review: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

>>Published: September 1992

>>Finally got around to it: September 2012

“I don’t see what’s wrong with the first plan.”

“The first plan is too stylized. Design is inherent in it through and through.”

“But design is preferable to chance.”

Henry smoothed the crumpled map against the table with the flat of his palm. “There, you’re wrong,” he said. “If we attempt to order events too meticulously, to arrive at point X via a logical trail, it follows that the logical trail can be picked up at point X and followed back to us. Reason is always apparent to a discerning eye. But luck? It’s invisible, erratic, angelic. What could possibly be better, from our point of view, than allowing Bunny to choose the circumstances of his own death?”

Everything was still. Outside, the crickets shrieked with rhythmic, piercing monotony.

***

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is a modern classic in every sense of the word: a dense, devilishly detailed psychological thriller about an elite Dead Poets Society-esque clique of students studying Greek—the language, culture, and history—in great detail at a Vermont university. Under the tutelage of the enigmatic Classics professor Julian Morrow, the group of six brilliant but socially underdeveloped students are presented as an increasingly strange and introverted family of gastronomical idiosyncrasies, nicotine and alcohol addiction, and malleable social ethics. Perpetually seeking new experiences and pleasures, four of the six—Henry, Francis, and the twins Charles and Camilla—attempt a Bacchanal: a hallucinatory rite in which they seek to experience contacting the Greco-Roman god Dionysus. However, during the rite, a farmer is accidentally murdered by Henry. Bunny and Richard, the latter being the novel’s narrator and the newest addition to this frighteningly arrogant group, were not present during the unfortunate event. Bunny, having known and leached financially from Henry for years, discovers the secret the foursome would like to have kept hidden, and is unable to cope with what he knows—at first riding them with uncomfortable jokes and comments meant to upset or make them uncomfortable, but gradually devolving through an uncharacteristic crisis of conscious. Bunny’s inability to keep the group’s secret leads, of course, to the tragedy that opens the novel: his murder.

That rather large chunk of exposition should do an adequate job setting the stage for Tartt’s six psychological disasters, with minimal details revealed. However, from this point on be warned: I intend to spoil the hell out of this book.

The Secret History is a page-turner, start to finish. From Richard’s captivating opening, revealing the death of Bunny and the partial scope of the investigation that followed, through the group’s pre-history, the slow reveal of the Bacchanal and the death of the farmer, planning and executing Bunny’s murder, and the mental dissolution of the group that carries through to the novel’s end, Tartt’s novel is a study in building and maintaining tension. Tartt’s characters, without exception, are intricate puzzles in and of themselves, each one a unique combination of sexual predilections, intellectual advantages, and emotional, often addiction-based shortcomings: Henry, the most notable of the lot, is emotionally reticent, closed off from revealing too much of himself as he studies each of history’s great civilizations in depth while refusing to acknowledge his clear sociopathic leanings; Francis hides his homosexuality behind his wit and affability; Charles and Camilla, often quiet and sullen, hide a subversive, violent, shared sexual past; Bunny, the louse, is an outwardly gregarious sort who shelters great contempt for others and fears of his own intellectual and financial inadequacies behind scathing humour and offensive, bigoted remarks, while simultaneously taking his friends for every cent he can; and Richard, the novel’s protagonist, who forces himself into this elite, narrowly-focused group as a means of proving himself and his intellectual worth—and to distance himself from his blue collar family back in Plano, California.

Guiding these sorry, socially divergent souls is Julian—their professor, their guide, and to some degree, their muse. Though not often present in the moment, Julian’s influence is felt throughout the novel—a slightly mysterious, deeply intelligent character with a potentially shady past, whose obsession with Greek culture and history is the most delicious of wines, impossible to resist. Bunny, Henry, Francis, Charles, and Camilla come from wealth and influence—there are no circles they feel incapable of wandering into. Julian’s severely limited class is, for them, as much about the prestige of belonging to yet another improbably exclusive club as it is their interest in the subject matter on hand. But Julian is as much an enabler as their inattentive parents and corrupt acquaintances, reinforcing their specialness, their social invincibility—so when they are faced with a matter of life and death, they choose to hide from their responsibilities, believing themselves above condemnation. Richard, for his part, is the novel’s willing participant—one so influenced by his insatiable desire to prove his worth, which he sees as being largely defined by his intellect and associations, that he is capable of eschewing his ethics in order to protect his newly acquired family.

The strengths of Tartt’s novel are in what is left unsaid—how the moment of Bunny’s actual demise is never gratuitously detailed; indeed how the only moment of fully realized violence is the novel’s definitive climax: when Henry puts Charles’ gun to his own head and pulls the trigger. It is the moment when their carefully constructed set of realities is brought finally, irrevocably, to its grisly end, and the full realization of their grim actions is brought to light at last. The tension Tartt builds by allowing so many seemingly innocuous are-they-or-aren’t-they-plotting-against-me moments to develop and fester is thick and palpable, creating a believable sense of paranoia that increases without once prematurely climaxing.

Julian’s departure in advance of the novel’s climax, having discovered his students’ murderous behaviour and feeling some untold responsibility for their untethered ambitions, is when things begin to fall apart—when the group first loses grasp of the naïve dream that they might one day be forgiven for their actions. As a matter of fact, it’s Julian’s departure, and to some degree his lack of physical presence, that presents for me one of the two key problems I experienced while reading Tartt’s tragedy: that he is at first presented as their axis, the personality around which they gravitate. As things spiral out of control in the weeks and months following the Bacchanal, Julian’s influence is supplanted by Henry’s plans and mechanisms. And as Henry attempts to assume total control over the increasingly distraught group, planning for and covering up Bunny’s murder, the gaping hole left by Julian’s influence is sorely felt. It is only when Julian discovers Henry’s role in Bunny’s death, and Henry sees in Julian’s eyes the look of a disappointed, frightened parent, that he once again becomes a notable force in their lives, removed from the casual commenter he’d become in the book’s second half (following Bunny’s death). The disappearance of Julian, having washed his hands of his students’ actions, is certainly felt, but not with the weight it might have had had he remained a more visible force in their lives—but then, Henry’s rise to influence would not have been as pronounced had Julian maintained a greater presence in their lives, so this is a little bit of a chicken-egg scenario, wanting something but realizing its absence is what makes the rest of the book so convincing and unsettling. It’s to Tartt’s credit (and my own obsession with academia) that Julian left such a mark on my experience that I was left wanting more.

The second key problem, however, is the more pronounced, and it is one I’ve not yet come to terms with: Bunny. To be more specific: the character of Bunny and the fondness with which Richard and others look back on their time with him, wishing things had turned out differently. My problem is that it is not believable. At no point is Bunny presented as anything but an insensitive, homophobic, bigoted parasite with no interests but to pleasure himself through food, drink, and what qualifies to Bunny as good humour. The many asides taken by Richard in the wake of Bunny’s death—remembering him fondly, wanting nothing more than to be again greeted by his jovial tones and good nature—ring false; there is nothing sympathetic in Bunny’s character or in the way he interacts with others. Had Francis or one of the twins been the one who’d had the crisis of conscious, I feel my response would be different. Bunny, however, seems the least likely to react in such a manner—he is little more than an emotionally detached man-child with little to no concept of consequence or of his negative impact upon the lives of the many from whom he takes and takes and takes without a hint of remorse. Bunny’s death, at the end of all things, is less a tragedy and more a social mercy.

These problems aside, The Secret History is a tense, engaging, and exciting read that, in the end, does not disappoint. The slow psychological dismemberment of Tartt’s characters—all but Richard and Henry, who she alludes at one point to being twin flames in their relative sociopathy—is captivating and handled with impressive subtlety. As an exercise in authority, control, and the perceived allowances made within certain social hierarchies, The Secret History is an accomplishment—a Greek tragedy in its own right.