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The Secret History

The Secret HistoryThe Secret History by Donna Tartt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this novel, and I’m sorry I waited as long as I did to read it! It’s hard for me to put into words the deep familiarity I felt with Tartt’s setting and characters. Though the novel takes place in a fictional small, Northeastern liberal arts college (a thinly veiled version of Bennington) so much of it reminded me of my own alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, that I found myself struck by the universality of experience that seems to be shared by all small, Northeastern liberal arts colleges. Every drum circle, every performance art piece, every empty paint can passed around the cafeteria to collect funds for a party, every drugged out co-ed sniffing coke off a dorm desk, and every student desperate to convince others they come from a background wealthier (or sometimes not as wealthy) than they actually did was instantly recognizable to me.

Tartt wisely takes the time to etch her characters indelibly into the reader’s mind through their interactions, until you very nearly loses track of the fact that these are terrible, terrible people. And yet, on some level you want them to get away with their crimes and feel a sense of nervous suspense when the trail of clues leads too closely back to them. Speaking of, the inclusion of an unusually strong plot for a college-based literary novel is another thing I loved about it. I’m tempted to call THE SECRET HISTORY a crime novel in disguise, one worthy of comparison to some of the best works of Donald E. Westlake, but that feels reductive. THE SECRET HISTORY is more than the sum of its parts. Brilliantly written, precisely executed, and a surprisingly fast, engrossing read for a novel of its length and density, I urge anyone interested in reading it to pick it up. Don’t wait like I did. This is a novel you’ll likely want to talk about for years to come — and if you happened to attend a small, Northeastern liberal arts college, it’s a novel that will likely hold up an uncomfortable (and at times nostalgic) mirror to your own experiences.

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The Scariest Part: Tess Makovesky Talks About RAISE THE BLADE


This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is British author Tess Makovesky, whose new novella is Raise the Blade. Here is the publisher’s description:

Like a spider wrapping flies…

When psychopath Duncan leaves a trail of duct-tape-wrapped bodies scattered across the suburbs of Birmingham, there’s nothing to link the victims except his own name and address, carefully placed on each new corpse.

Six very different people follow his clues, each convinced they can use Duncan to further their own selfish or naïve ends. Is there a reason Duncan’s driven to target these particular individuals, or does their very nature contribute to their fate? Will any of them be strong enough to break the cycle and escape a painful death? Or will Duncan reel them in and rearrange them to his own insane ideal?

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Tess Makovesky:

I couldn’t for one moment claim that my novella Raise the Blade is horror. It is, however, psychological noir, and like many books of that type it contains parts that are disturbing, unnerving, or even downright upsetting: so much so that I found writing some of them very hard work.

The book was partly inspired by the Pink Floyd track ‘Brain Damage’ (lyrics by the brilliant Roger Waters), and in particular the chilling lines:

You raise the blade
You make the change
You rearrange me till I’m sane

which have given me the shivers ever since I first heard them thirty-odd years ago. They gave me the idea for serial killer Duncan, who follows to the limit his own cold, logical (and totally insane) belief that rearranging people will cure them, with horrific results.

There are several sections which troubled me — more so as the book went on, since the structure works in reverse, revealing a little more of the killer’s methods with each new (previous) victim. However, easily the worst to write, and quite possibly the hardest for other people to read, was the chapter about Muriel.

There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, Muriel is Duncan’s first victim, but the last to feature in the book. I saved up the full, shocking details of his M.O. for her, so you get to see exactly how and when she dies. I’m not going into details because that would spoil the surprise, but let’s just say that the prologue quotes Cat Stevens for good reason.

The first cut. Not the deepest, in spite of what Cat Stevens says. Just a little scratch, through the tape, barely enough to mark the skin…

Even though I don’t linger on the gore, I found it hard to write since I have a ‘thing’ about suffering, and find it really difficult to cope with books, TV programmes or films which show people going through long-drawn-out physical pain, fear, or mental or emotional anguish. It’s the main reason I don’t actually like horror books or films. I don’t find the effects particularly frightening; I just get upset because the people are suffering so horribly.

But it was the second reason which really got to me. Muriel is Duncan’s mother, well into her seventies or early eighties, and like so many people of that age these days, suffering with dementia.

It was getting harder to leave the house. Every so often she had the oddest sensation she didn’t know where she was; that every familiar landmark had suddenly been swept away, leaving her on a lonely foreign shore…

This was particularly hard for me because my own mother went through the sheer hell of Alzheimer’s, eventually dying from the complications it caused. Although Muriel’s character isn’t remotely based on Mum, the details of her illness are very much taken from my own personal experience. The sudden lapses in concentration. The escalation of the mental decline during times of great stress. The flashbacks to a husband she knows existed but barely remembers. The touching but ultimately flawed emotional dependence on people who are still familiar to her. The bewilderment of both the sufferer and their loved ones as things get progressively worse. I lived through pretty much all of that, and writing about it, although probably cathartic, was also really, really tough.

Because that’s what mothers did. Buried their fear, buried their pain, did whatever they could to make their sons’ dreams come true.

I tried to push my own emotions to the back of my mind, for fear that I might get so upset I’d never actually write the scene. However, that then proved impossible, because without that emotional connection to the characters, I felt it was becoming stiff and uninvolving. It’s as though the author has to be right there with the people they’re writing about, in order to make the scene come to life for their readers. So then I had to tear down the protective walls I’d built and actually experience Muriel’s suffering and eventual death for myself. I’m hoping it makes for a gripping and involving scene, but boy, was it hard. I wrote the whole chapter flat out in about half an hour, totally engrossed, and resorting to a box of tissues whenever things got too bad.

I like to think it worked. I still find that chapter the hardest to go back and read, and I’m hoping that’s a sign that I got the emotional impact right.

The saddest and scariest part, though, is that no amount of rearranging could ever cure Muriel — or my Mum. And that really is tough.

Tess Makovesky: Website / Blog / Facebook / Twitter

Raise the Blade: Amazon US / Amazon UK

Liverpool lass Tess Makovesky is now settled in the far north of England where she roams the fells with a brolly, dreaming up new stories and startling the occasional sheep. Tess writes a distinctive brand of British comédie noir and her short stories have darkened the pages of various anthologies and magazines, including Shotgun Honey, Pulp Metal Magazine, Drag Noir (Fox Spirit), Rogue (Near to the Knuckle), and Locked and Loaded (One Eye Press). Her debut novella, Raise the Blade, a psychological noir tale involving a serial killer in Birmingham and a lot of Pink Floyd references, is available from Caffeine Nights Publishing now.