The Secret History – Donna Tartt
By Shauna Lewis
A modern classic with a cult fanbase, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History follows six classics students at an elite university in New England. Opening with the death of one of the members at the hands of the group, the book then rewinds to look at the motives behind his death and the consequences.
Subverting the usual ‘whodunit’ mystery trope, the novel is instead a ‘whydunit’. We know immediately who has murdered Bunny. This is what works so well for the narrative; the answers we are looking for lie within the brains of the characters, who we are growing to know and like. It’s infuriatingly effective because ‘why’ can sometimes feel like less of an important question than ‘who’, but Tartt’s narrative is masterfully suspenseful and creepy enough to work as an incentive to persist. Even when you feel like you know the answers you keep going.
In certain respects, The Secret History reminds me of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, although it isn’t quite so explicit with the unreliable narration and the changing image of all the characters, it’s subtler. You question what you’ve been reading from Richard’s perspective and then through the questions he asks of himself. He doesn’t change his perception of himself, but as the reader you change yours- and you still feel as if he’s questioning himself after the novel has finished.
Quotes that have been slipped in, and (very) strange character traits that Tartt has created, become major plot devices by the end of the book. ‘Beauty is terror’, Julian laments at the start, in a vaguely pretentious lesson in which the reader can find some comment on the present-day state of society. At the novel’s conclusion though, it becomes transparent that the book has been a contemplation on the obsession with beauty and the detrimental effect of it all along. In an age where everyone is concerned with image, it seems oddly fitting in summer to read a book fixated on the idea of beauty and the perils of it.
Despite the book being almost absurd when you think about it too hard – the characters being impossibly clever and peculiar in a way which you could only find in a novel – it’s believable. The students are an exaggerated, ethereal version of the elite group we all had at school, except with an obsession with the ancient Greeks and Romans. It’s fitting that their actions are replicas of the historical figures they have studied – you get a sense of history being repeated, as we are always told it does.
Especially in summer, when you vastly underestimate how many books you can get through in a week on holiday, it’s a good one to be able to read through again. Even when you’re re-reading you can pluck something different out of it, a motive you didn’t see before or a different layer of the characters that could be true, or maybe not. It is a true ‘mystery’ novel in that the mystery is never truly solved by the reader or the characters themselves, which makes it a go-to over the summer break.
The Doors of the Sea – David Bentley Hart
By Angus King
Attempting to reconcile the Christian God with the problem of evil is the most ubiquitous, challenging and divisive theological quandary, and is aptly the focus of David Bentley Hart’s short work The Doors of the Sea. Hart’s motivation for his writing came in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, when he wrote a brief article for the Wall Street Journal and was appalled by the responses of both Christians and atheists to the disaster. Hart objected vehemently to the immediate enthusiasm of atheists in manipulating the catastrophe to amplify their criticisms of God’s omnibenevolence, and rejected the affirmations of Christian journalists that the suffering was part of God’s faultless plan for humanity. This intellectual conflict between God and evil undoubtedly prompted Hart to write The Doors of the Sea, and through presenting his own educated account, he attempts to dissuade the reader from accepting the harmful and illogical explanations of suffering that were prevalent in the press at the time.
At the beginning of the first part of his book, “Universal Harmony”, Hart commences by attacking J.L Mackie’s “Inconsistent Triad”, which postulates that evil cannot exist in a world where God is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent. Hart writes that this “rock of atheism”, to quote Hume, is based merely upon an anthropomorphism that reduces God to a finite ethical agent, measurable by humans. Hart believes that God is not a thing amongst other things in the universe, as He transcends space and time, and thus cannot be disproved simply by the existence of evil on earth. Indeed, Hart corroborates this idea with the example of Voltaire’s Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, as Voltaire attempts to combat the notion that suffering is a necessary aspect of God’s order in the universe. Hart, however, argues poignantly that this notion is not relevant to the God of Christian doctrine, but instead to an outdated 18th century idea of a God who governs a universe exactly as he intended it to be. This leads Hart to conclude that the God which many atheists find repugnant is in fact merely a warped phantasm of the Christian God and, as a result, non-theistic attempts to disprove Him are unfounded as, like Voltaire, their very understanding of God is flawed.
An equally flawed example of commentators confusing the nature of God comes later in the first part of Hart’s book, where he mentions some of the responses to the presentation of natural evil recounted in his article. Hart disagrees with the assumption that random suffering is illusory, and contradicts the view that evil will eventually lead to some mysterious ultimate bliss. In fact, Hart argues that these responses flagrantly ignore the New Testament language of God: a deity in combat with evil, providing grace. Hence, Hart feels that evil has no purpose within God’s will, and explains this using Ivan Karamazov’s disenchantment with God in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan lists, in horrifying detail, numerous tales of children who have suffered in horrendously gruesome fashions completely unjustly. Ivan then posits that in heaven humans will finally be able to comprehend the ultimate good achieved by all the suffering, arguing that God’s actions in harming the children are still objectively unforgivable, irrespective of any divine restoration.
The second part of his book, “Divine Victory”, opens by enquiring as to exactly what nature and the natural world really are. Hart notes the two very different senses of the ‘world’ in the New Testament, as it describes how a loving Christ came to grant the world salvation, whilst also referring to the world as a malevolent order, led by Satan, which humans must not involve themselves with. For Hart, therefore, God and evil are related insofar as evil is in patent conflict with God; an unnecessary enemy that he never ordained. Therefore evil, for Hart, exists merely as a result of the abuse of the original freedom God created by allowing us the opportunity to obtain holy union with Him. Hart concludes that accepting God’s freedom is a necessary metaphysical position for the Christian, and thus compounds Augustine’s belief that evil is a privation of good, or ‘privatio boni’, agreeing that evil possesses no ‘ontos’, or positive existence itself, but is rather an absence of goodness. Hart refers to evil, in relation to God, as a ‘kind of ontological wasting disease’, explaining how it is born in the will of man, with no divine purpose to God’s creation.
Overall, Hart’s polemic acts as a compelling tool for both theists and non-theists to understand the relationship between God and Evil. Hart’s presentation of God is of one separate to the rest of creation, in bitter conflict with evil, transcending time and space through an infinite freedom. Overall, Hart’s book is extremely effective in persuading the reader towards his view of the problem of suffering. His impressive grip on language and rhetoric is occasionally gratuitous, but his examples from Voltaire and Dostoyevsky are comprehensive and convincing. One major criticism, however, is Hart’s vagueness in regard to the nature of the Fall, as his short work fails to explain in any great detail the intricacies of man’s abuse of his divinely appointed freedom. Nonetheless, his stance on the relationship between God and evil is clear and palatable, as he concludes that the quarrels of theists and non-theists can be easily solved by studying the gospel account of God’s relationship with the fallen world, in harmony with Augustine’s view of evil as the privation of good.
The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
Arundhati Roy’s first novel, The God of Small Things, is a masterpiece full of brooding foreshadowing, rich with a kaleidoscope of voices. First, I will gush over Roy’s compelling use of language that grips the reader from the very first sentence. She establishes the sombre mood of the novel straight away through pathetic fallacy, setting the backdrop for the tragic events that befall the dysfunctional family. Every word is beautifully placed for maximum impact, every moment is emotionally charged, and it’s all done in such a seemingly effortless way. The powerful motifs punctuate the stark realism of the novel through promoting themes of darkness, doom and loss. Love is shown to be the only limitless and illuminating force as the characters turn to each other to try and move on from the traumatic events they have experienced.
There is a mystery at the heart of it: how did their cousin Sophie Mol die? The answer is tangled up in overlapping storylines that artfully unravel to expose the truth. All the minute factors and feelings that cause the family members’ actions are carefully described, engrossing the reader through the sheer depth of detail. Sophie’s death haunts Estha and Rahel; it will be stained on their memory forevermore. Each characters’ contribution to the awful night that marks Sophie’s death is brought into focus. This accentuates the importance of the butterfly effect in the pattern of the narrative. The heartbreaking revelation of what happened to Sophie moved me to tears.
The characterisation is so well developed that it is impossible not to become invested in their lives. The quotation by John Berger at the start, ‘never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one,’ makes it clear that Roy’s integration of varying perspectives through free indirect discourse is fundamental to the novel’s purpose. Even the villains’ backstories are explored, showing how they became embittered by their disappointing lives. This inevitably evokes a degree of understanding and sympathy for them which further complicates the text.
The setting of the novel, particularly in relation to the Indian caste system, is crucial to its discussion of the “Love Laws.” The characters’ main struggles involve trying to keep within the confines of these “Love Laws” that society imposes on them. Roy takes on the role of social commentator as she expresses how unnatural it is to have rules that govern who we love, and how. Roy reflects on the injustice of peoples’ lives being seen as ‘small things’ compared to others of higher ranking in the caste system.
The God of Small Things offers an incredible insight into the harrowing effects of the caste system for an ‘Untouchable’ who falls in love with someone above their social class. Set in 1993, the narrative uses a series of analepses to return to 1969, the year of the fateful incident. The differences between these temporal settings are important to the novel’s insight into the political context of India in terms of Communism and changing attitudes towards British culture.
The novel is undoubtedly tragic, but at the end it shifts in tone to share a beautiful message of hope rising up despite the bleakness of their lives. This hope is encapsulated in the word ‘naaley’ meaning ‘tomorrow.’ I was impressed by this perfectly poignant ending as its positivity came as a surprise to me. Based on how much I enjoyed The God of Small Things, I know I will be reading more from Roy and I strongly recommend that you do the same!
Photograph: Josue Goge via Flickr Creative Commons