Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Laura Waddell: This much-emulated book is an author’s take on holiday reading

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Despite what I’ve whined and groaned about in the logs about the selection normally offered in airport bookshops, I’ve still decided to entrust last month’s holiday reading to WH Smith at Edinburgh Airport.

The reason? As I wrote then, I was determined not to read anything with a deadline for submission of copies stuck between the pages: nothing I intended for review.

What is a holiday in the book industry if not a break from the tyranny of publication dates? I took a good look at the clutter of proofs on my desk and the stack of book-form mail I hadn’t opened yet, and decided to grab a classic along the way.

Penguin Books’ history has been repeated often enough to earn it the status of a modern fable: in 1934, in response to the substandard, overpriced bookstall selection at Exeter St David’s station, publisher Allen Lane pioneered the paperback revolution and made good ones Books attractive and affordable for ordinary workers on their way to work – as they should be.

It was a Penguin book that I finally chose and rummaged through the shelves until my hand landed on Donna Tartt’s often imitated but never surpassed The Secret History. Having read it once before when I was a student, I knew it was a winner and always intended to come back to it.

The Secret History is an intelligent thriller that tells the story of a tight-knit group of Greek students who are semi-isolated from the rest of their historic New England campus by the intensity of their teaching – and by their snobbery.

Pursuing the fates and furies of the legend, their hedonism unfolds not in the familiar ways of drugs, sex and student parties – but in murder.

In her best novel for the money, Tartt has created a compelling, memorable group of co-conspirators. There’s the clumsy Bunny Corcoran, cut off from the family fortune and dependent on others to foot the bill for the lunches he shamelessly invites them to; wealthy, will never have to work Henry, devoted to the study of the ancient world to the point of madness; and narrator Richard, from Plano, California, watching these rich kids with horror — and complicity.

Campus novels of recent years look a little wet in comparison.

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