10 Books Like The Secret History by Donna Tartt To Curl Up With At Night
The commercial success of The Secret History led to the publication of a slew of novels featuring similar elements. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl and The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler are just two among their number, and they’re often mentioned in the same breath as Tartt’s masterpiece. However, in this particular library of “Books like…” we’re going to look at fiction which aligns closely with The Secret History without being part of the ensuing literary trend it created.
If Tartt’s debut novel lies in a garden maze filled with dark and delicious stories, there are certain keys you can collect to unlock its gate. Let’s take a closer look, to make sure those keys fit their locks snugly…
What makes this list of books like The Secret History by Donna Tartt?
- Any novel you could describe as “like The Secret History” (and get away with it) needs to be a psychological thriller featuring a crime, death or secret, for a start.
- It goes without saying that it will be well-written. Exquisitely written certainly wouldn’t hurt.
- It should depict a closed society like a school, orphanage or island divided from the main – somewhere where strange notions can breed like spores in a petri dish, untroubled by normal society and what everyone else thinks.
- Perhaps there’ll be an otherly sense of mystery lurking at the fringes of the tale.
- Taboos must be broken, deception and lies must abound, and the reader will be filled with that ominous sense that society is a precious ball of wool set to unravel the moment a single thread is pulled.
- This wishlist is getting longer, but a final nice-to-have: any book like Donna Tartt’s masterpiece will also, ideally, teach the reader. The Secret History beckoned us to dip our toes in the shallows of an ocean of ancient Greek. It warmly invited the reader to feel as educated as the classical scholars it depicted. To learn as one reads is to wade deeper into life’s mysteries.
Surely all this isn’t too much to ask? Here are some sparkling contenders to appease readers who finished The Secret History and demanded more, more, more…
The Secret Place by Tana French
In its pages: Crime, boarding schools cliques and a hint of The Other…
Detective Stephen Moran is keen on getting into Dublin’s Murder Squad. He seizes his chance when a teen schoolgirl brings him a photo of a boy found murdered at the boys’ school neighbouring her own boarding school two years ago. The photo has a caption: I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM. But who left the photo on the school’s noticeboard for anonymous gossip, known as The Secret Place? This gorgeously evocative crime thriller lifts the lid on how insidious schoolgirl cliques can be while exploring the terror/joy of testing teenage boundaries.
The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman
In its pages: Classical education, mysterious boarding school rituals and taboo
Often compared with The Secret History, this snake’s pit of a story – all writhing twists and turns – is set in a girl’s boarding school by the lonely shores of a lake in the Adirondacks. Following a terrible tragedy involving suicides, ex-student Jane Hudson returns decades later as a Latin teacher. She seeks peace, but ugly secrets rise to the surface as the memories that haunt her refuse to stay submerged…
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
In its pages: Mysteriously idyllic islands, rich white people having fun, secrets and lies
There are so many exciting and beautifully written YA books coming to the fore right now. We Were Liars tells the story of The Beautiful Sinclairs, a wealthy extended family basking in the privilege of summer holidays on its own private island. Cadence Sinclair suffers from memory loss, a result of an accident on the island two years ago. Filled with thoughts of teenage romance, nostalgia and unease, Cadence must piece together the mystery, even if it leads her to very dark places indeed.
Skein Island by Aliya Whiteley
In its pages: Mythology, island secrets, society unravelled
This is one of the least-known books on our list, and one of the most interesting. Marianne Percival is invited by rich recluse Lady Worthington to stay on Skein Island, a private island refuge separated from the coast by stormy waters. To receive such an invite is a privilege. The catch? Lady Worthington is dead. Who really sent Marianne the summons, and can there be a link to her mother’s disappearance? The secrets of Skein Island come at a price, for every visitor must share a story from their past as a Declaration for the island’s library. A rare gem, this mystery examines the roles we play in life and is written with the same luminosity and exquisite attention to words you’d expect from Donna Tartt.
Bright Young Things by Scarlett Thomas
In its pages: Crime, lies, micro-society and island survival
Six twenty-something graduates burned out by dead-end jobs reply to a most unlikely job ad in the newspaper: BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS WANTED FOR BIG PROJECT. Their hopes are shattered when they find themselves trapped on an isolated island, with no clue as to why they’ve been taken prisoner and no means of escape. Scarlett Thomas specialises in beautifully-written literary novels heavily laced in pop culture that circle around what it is to want, and to be. And it’s hard to resist any book that centres on one of the best questions of all time: “what would you do if you were stranded on a deserted island?”.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
In its pages: Mysteries, knowledge, secret symbols, innocence lost
On the one hand, this is a historical potboiler where two monks – a wise Franciscan and a wet-behind-the-ears young Benedictine – attempt to solve a series of gruesomely gothic murders in a medieval monastery. On the other hand, it’s a deep exploration of medieval belief and learning through the ages, with endless (but oh-so satisfying) talk of philosophy, theology and science. Umberto Eco was a medieval expert long before he ever turned his hand to fiction, in fact. This book is so layered, yet so light-hearted. If you were lucky enough to read it as a teenager, now might very well be the time to give it another go. You may still recall the ending, but it’s the delightfully labyrinthine journey which makes this book a classic.
The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller
In its pages: Secret societies, the cruelty of youth, coming of age, herd instinct
“Do you know what it took for Socrates’ enemies to make him stop pursuing the truth? Hemlock.”
Like We Were Liars, this YA novel is a smart read, though its tone is perhaps the furthest removed from Donna Tartt’s debut masterwork. Spirited fourteen-year-old budding reporter Iris Dupont is something of an outsider in the Mariana Academy, whose glossy reputation is being disrupted by a secret society hell-bent on exposing students and teachers with its own fierce brand of vigilante justice in the form of bullying, secret surveillance tapes and more. With students hiding their identities behind pig masks, it will come as no surprise that Jennifer Miller’s depiction of school life holds more in common with Lord of the Flies than Mallory Towers.
With only the self-consciously fantasised ghost of famous American journalist Edward R. Murrow to keep her company, Iris aims to infiltrate the Academy’s underground newspaper, The Devil’s Advocate, to unearth the source of its malicious rumours. Some centre on the school’s new science teacher, who also appears to be investigating the society. Others point to an albino ex-student called Lily who left the school ten years previously under shadowy circumstances.
Told from three viewpoints – those of Iris, Lily and the science teacher Jonah – The Year of the Gadfly is a punchy, retro and fun page-turner with serious questions about consequences and following the crowd at its heart.
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
In its pages: Gothic mystery, old-fashioned sensibility, the art of storytelling, solitude and gloom, sisterhood, secrets
“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner.”
Biographer Margaret Lea has never yet read a book by Vida Winter, a novelist so popular she is thought to have sold as many copies of her works as the Bible. Nevertheless, one night Margaret comes home to her little flat above her father’s antiquarian bookshop to find a letter from the gravely ill Vida Winter inviting her to write her biography while there is time. To better acquaint herself with Vida Winter’s work, Margaret locates an old copy of Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is mesmerised by these stories, and resolves to take Vida up on her offer, but the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale?
Though The Thirteenth Tale has both plot and character, it’s arguably the language which most deeply captivates. Richly gothic, piled high with family secrets all the way up to the (no doubt locked) attic, this novel will particularly suit the tastes of fans of both The Secret History and the Bronte sisters.
The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood
In its pages: Class divides, wealthy student elite, cliques, sex and death
The bodies strewed around an elegant Cambridgeshire house – who do they belong to? And how did they get there? Our narrator, Oscar, is young, bright and working class. Having fallen for upper class Cambridge student, Iris Bellwether, he becomes embroiled in a close-knit group of friends dominated by Iris’ brother, Eden, a talented and charismatic musician who’s convinced he has the power to heal through music.
The ensemble characters are more crudely-drawn than one would hope, but there’s just about enough here to draw the reader in and merit the cover blurb describing this debut work as “part The Secret History, part Brideshead Revisited for the 21st century”.
Different Class by Joanne Harris
In its pages: School microcosms, endless deceit, the old vs. the new
Latin master Roy Straitley is part of the furniture at St. Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys. Can he still find his place when his haven of classroom chalk and Liquorice Allsorts is breached by the fluidities of modernity, tainted with the scandal of a murder, threatened with financial ruin and assailed with the prospect of women, yes, women in its halls following a proposed merger? And what will happen when the hip new head of St. Oswalds turns out to be his much-disliked old pupil – not only an “insufferable boy” but one linked to a terrible school scandal two decades ago? A skilfully laid trail of clues leads the reader to the heart of a dark maze with nuanced mastery, each sentence filled with a deep, warm understanding of modern society and people.
This thriller’s pages are laden with doom, yet it’s impossible to stop oneself from turning. Once again, Joanne Harris proves she’s one of the best writers out there, whatever she turns her hand to.
Have you found any books like The Secret History on your reading odysseys? Share your favourites!