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Turning pages

I’ve just finished two awesome books and I have to tell you about them! Now!

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Holy cow this one is good. I understand it’s Tartt’s first novel and it’s incredible. Six elite Classics students (passionately committed to Ancient Greek) at a Vermont university are involved in an accidental death and then a murder: that seems like such a bland and glib summary, but I don’t know how to convey to you the sheer richness and involvement of this book. The characters are living, laughing, weeping people; the locations are vivid and the action is gripping. But above all that, the atmosphere is flawless. It moves between melancholy, funny and frightening, from scene to scene, while always building the sense of menace and unease in the background, culminating in the students’ ultimate downfalls. This isn’t a murder mystery, it’s a tragedy. And it is magnificent: strong and beautiful and moving, as a tragedy should be.

There are themes of falling from ideals; what happens when literary adoration meets reality; individual tragedy and grief, whether as a result of the actions of the self, the actions of others or circumstance; the truth behind relationships and their destruction by horrific events — oh, this is a helluva story. This story is powerful, exciting and moving and I loved every minute of it: I think I finished it in about four days, but time grows fuzzy with a book this involving.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Another murder and another book lush with atmosphere: but they are entirely different worlds. Moving from The Secret History to Midnight triggered a bit of atmosphere whiplash, but I recovered quickly. The atmosphere in Midnight is as rich as that in The Secret History, but completely different in feel. It’s set in Savannah, Georgia, and explores the full spectrum of emotional and cultural colours such a setting implies: there’s hoodoo, there’s forceful, aggressive, joyous sexuality, there’s heat and insanity, there’s death, insanity, history, feuds and rigidly observed social rituals. The book is soaked in Savannah’s cultural vibe and you really feel like it couldn’t be set anywhere else. The murder doesn’t take place until halfway through the book, with the first half made up of character studies and vignettes. And, despite the current trend of advice to writers, which seems to say over and over “anything that isn’t plot is pointless!”, it works brilliantly. It feels like a murder story that gradually reaches boiling point and then charges on for the rest of the book.

This isn’t really a murder mystery, and, it turns out, it isn’t really a novel, either; apparently it’s based on fact. (I love reading books and then discovering that about them.) But it is exciting and engrossing, funny in places, dark in others, and so, so vivid that if you read too much in one sitting you’ll find yourself thinking with a Southern twang. It’s great.

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