I finished reading Kirsten Tranter’s The Legacy today, which in Sydney broke cold and overcast, and frankly without a great deal of promise. I have to face the music, as it were, and finish the work I know needs doing on MS #1, but I was happy to dodge it for another day by disappearing into Tranter’s novel instead. Sometimes a well-placed spell of procrastination and avoidance can be a writer’s best friend. And if there’s any better way for a writer to spend time away from his or her own work than reading the work of others, I am yet to hear it.
The whole way through The Legacy, I was forcefully reminded not of the novel to which Tranter apparently does pay overt homage – Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, which I’ve not read – but the celebrated debut of another young female author, Donna Tartt’s 1992 bestseller, The Secret History. Tartt was a protégé of Bret Easton Ellis, from memory dedicating the book to him (I have just discovered my copy irritatingly isn’t where it should be, so at present I can’t check); Tranter is said to have drawn on the style of Raymond Chandler in addition to her Jamesian gestures, but nowhere have I read any mention of a possible Tartt connection or influence. It’s been a very long time since I read Tartt’s famous debut; perhaps the similarities are more of mood than substance, and anyway it doesn’t really matter, beyond being interesting to me.
But if you’ll indulge my fascination for such things as literary antecedents, let’s look at it for a moment, with the understanding from the outset that I mean this comparison to be complimentary – I enjoyed Tranter’s novel, and at the time loved Tartt’s. So. University campuses and their troubled, alternately promising products feature heavily in both. An exclusive, charismatic, enormously privileged and ultimately doomed claustrophobic circle of friendship between disaffected students does too, as do Classics Departments and the study of Ancient Greek. Richard Papen, The Secret History’s narrator, is an outsider, an observer without the money, star power and confidence of his friends. In The Legacy, narrator Julia Alpers fills this role of detached-witness-of-modest-means, like Richard very much an honorary rather than natural member of the elevated circles in which she moves, and remains a two-dimensional figure until late in this long book. Julia’s insubstantiality is no doubt the effect of watching and relaying the action rather than really driving or affecting it, and it’s not really until her second trip to wintry New York from Sydney’s summer (in The Secret History, Richard instead travels from sunny California to frosty Vermont) that we really get to know Julia at all on her own terms. This is, of course, part of the point: there’s a coming-of-age aspect to both these novels, in which the protagonists must finally discover their own path away from the influence of their manipulative, glamorous but strangely dangerous friends.
Finally, there’s eccentricity galore and plenty of erotic tension too; in The Secret History, two of the main players are twins; in The Legacy, they’re cousins: genetically, financially, psychologically, sexually entwined members of the same family. Oh yes, there’s crime, too, and the death or presumed death of a member of the inner circle is the core narrative driver in both. Murder is speculated about; people and their conflicting motives and accounts begin to gradually unravel.
I mention all this only to articulate my own sense of the parallels, not to insist that they’re plainly there for all to behold. I have no idea if anyone else would find the two novels at all similar, only that this recent novel kept evoking memories of the older one for me. The cloying atmosphere of deception in both, the exploration of the harmful consequences of keeping bad secrets, the portraits of unrequited passion, and the really detailed explorations of place all combine in my mind to give me a sense of a different sort of legacy, being the way readers draw such lines as may not exist, and sometimes make sense of new stories they read via reference to others read long ago. It’s a way of keeping one’s own secret history, I suppose, and nurturing that special chamber of the heart where all good books live.