Invited into their circle: the Oxbridge Secret History

Today I’m going to talk about a category of books I love: privileged, genius, and/or eccentric students make questionable choices, mostly in books that are compared to The Secret History (Donna Tartt’s infamous epitome of this genre). To do so, I’m going to be discussing two books I bought and read recently, both set in Oxbridge, both featuring incredibly rich students and more ‘normal’ protagonists, both compared to both Brideshead Revisited and The Secret History on their covers.

I’m starting with The Lessons by Naomi Alderman because the second of my choices references this book on its cover so I felt that must be the natural progression. The narrator is James, a Physics student who falls behind almost as soon as he gets to Oxford and is feeling the weight of his parents’ and older sister’s expectations for him. Soon he is drawn into the world of the charismatic Mark Winters and becomes part of a group of friends living in Mark’s strange Oxford house. As the years pass, it turns out that they were not at all prepared for life and that their wild lifestyle in Oxford is not so suited to the outside world.

It is easy to compare James with Richard Papen from The Secret History: narrators apprehensive yet drawn into a seductive world of an enigmatic friendship group, unreliable in their description of characters, and far too entwined to narrate with any sense of objectivity. What differs is that James becomes far less of an onlooker and instead part of the narrative of desire and betrayal that runs through the novel. The other main characters are vividly drawn and run from recognisable stereotypes, but it is Mark who is the standout character, as is to be expected. His issues and unstable nature mixed with large generosity with the money he barely understands the value of make him exactly the kind of enthralling figure who captivates even when they are making terrible decisions.

In terms of plot, The Lessons is not hugely similar to TSH, but feels more a child of Brideshead, albeit without any wars. Much of its thrill comes from wondering what the characters will do next and watching as secrets are revealed and life fails to turn out how they expected it to. If you like the genre, it is a hugely enjoyable read, with the relationship between James and Mark forming a dark and complicated core.

The second book, The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood, is set in Cambridge and features a protagonist not actually at the university, a shock for the category. Instead Oscar is a care assistant who stumbles across the Bellwether siblings Iris and Eden by accident when he is lured into King’s College chapel by the music playing. What unfurls is a narrative dominated by Eden, a musical genius who attempts to conduct experiments on his group of friends and refuses to accept any boundaries that the world might place on him.

Oscar’s outsider view of the group lessens as he begins a relationship with Iris and he becomes a classic figure drawn into events he can barely comprehend. A lot is left unsaid in the book, creating lingering mystery and allowing the gaps to be filled in by the reader. Like The Lessons, the student backdrop is accurately painted, though their student lives are less important than in either The Lessons or The Secret History. More significant is Eden’s spellbinding power and the attempts of Oscar and Iris to work out if he really has something special about him. As in Alderman’s novel, The Bellwether Revivals opens with a mysterious scene from near the end of the narrative, begging the question of how things will go so wrong. In both cases this adds to the sense that a life of privilege and genius cannot turn out rosy and safe.

In my opinion, The Bellwether Revivals is more worthy of the Donna Tartt comparison, due to its plot and use of academic experiments and historical ideas, though The Lessons has a better cast of captivating characters who draw the reader into their circle (and I personally enjoyed more, possibly because the Oxford accuracy drew me in). Both books are worth reading for anybody who likes this kind of out of control academic setting and closely entwined messed up friendship group. Just don’t let them give you any ideas…