Donna Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend (2002), seems to float above itself. While the characters, world and turns of scene are finely — almost baroquely — wrought, the oomph, or the motivating forces behind characters seem to fade into obscurity, leaving the narrative to roll lazily to a halt, rather than finding finality.
The Little Friend follows Harriet, twelve years old (twelve birthdays beyond her own years, it seems), who plans to track down and punish her brother’s murderer. In the vein of Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005) and Enid Blyton’s old Fantastic Five stories, this is a school-holidays adventure, with a hefty dose of engine-oil and amphetamines. Here, the old-school ‘robbers’ are meth-addled, snake-handling preachers, and instead of a country farm, the characters dodge between sweaty suburbia and cicada-riddled forests. The stakes are higher, and the protagonists — though still reigned in by the naiveté of youth — have a bravery and perception beyond their years.
Harriet’s quest leads us through a labyrinthine retelling of her family history. Little Robin, Harriet’s younger brother, was murdered, the killer left un-captured, the motivation unknown still. Harriet, crippled by her her family’s persistent patronization of her, longs to punish her brother’s killer, who she sees to be the progenitor of her familial misery. Robin’s death is the initial knot that gathers and tangles the Cleve family’s increasingly frayed and dysfunctional parts, and Tartt builds a rich image of Harriet’s life, and the Mississippi town she lives in.
“There was a tickle of mystery about it still, something sad a foreign, like rotted forests or woodsmoke in autumn; it was the old dark smell of plantation armoires, of Tribulation, of the very past.” (p. 123)
As in Tartt’s previous work, The Secret History (1992), the details of setting become engrossing, keep the reader turning pages. Tartt’s descritive reach seems to reach endlessly beyond the sightline of the more humble narrative path she follows. In The Little Friend, it is likely because these details are imbued (even if only distantly) with some of the broader sweeps of Southern Mythology that give this story the breadth of a Grecian tragedy, interwoven with the grottiness of drug-dealers and religious faith that lend the narrative a greater sense of depth than is perhaps actually present.
That said, these details arise from a plot that seems to roll forward without any motivating force. Harriet affixes her vengeful gaze on a suspect, but he is selected using little to no evidence. This could have been a more significant fallacy of Harriet’s journey, yet it remains unexplored, and therefore leaves her drive for revenge diffuse and purposeless. Many Goodreads reviews express frustration at Tartt’s choice not to reveal Robin’s murderer. Again, this choice — leaving us hanging, enfuriated — could have been a powerful device to make us examine the story, but instead we are left wondering why Harriet (or anyone) went on this journey at all, as we were left without even a hint at the possible motivation forRobin’s murder.
This book was engaging, and can be read it very quickly (even without taking into consideration the motivating factor of being cooped up on your parents’ boat with few other places to escape to…). That said, the unfinished Grecian Tragedy of Harriet’s journey — the spine from which these intricacies of character and place extend — leaves the reader feeling hollow.
WHERE TO READ: This (as with the Famous Five series and any other rollicking, back-waters-ish stories) is excellent when read well out of the city, in somewhere where you can walk near trees and find rusted car parts…
INCLUSIVITY: Addresses a nuanced (but deeply exploitative) relationship with a house worker, Ida Rhew. The relationship illustrates the evolving and ever-present slavery of African-Americans.
THIS OR “The Secret History”. Both. This woman writes characters to admire, with guts and intelligence. Brave (and inadvertently cool) to a fault. If you get tugged along by mysteries and by absorbing worlds, follow Tartt.