Robin is nine and hangs from a tree. His neck is broken and no one knows who has killed him. Ten years later, his little sister tries to find out.
The Little Friend is of that most vulnerable of species, the eagerly awaited second novel. It is gambling on the reputation of Donna Tartt’s 1992 debut, the bestselling The Secret History, an erudite page-turner of a murder mystery set in an elite Vermont college.
This time, Donna Tartt goes back home, to the Deep South of the 1960s. It’s dangerous territory, of course. The fictional town of Alexander in Mississippi has all the trappings of Southern Gothic. There are rambling families and secrets tucked away in musky homes, black motherly nannies, dirty white trash round the corner, not to mention snakes and Baptists and wilting figures in the pounding heat.
It is against this backdrop that Harriet, helped by her devoted friend Hely, embarks upon her investigation. A baby at the time of Robin’s murder, she has grown ever more curious about the one event never spoken about in her house.Her mind, fed on Stevenson and Defoe, has the chance, one long hot summer, to conjure up a case in the cobwebs of her imagination from the throwaway comments of the grown-ups surrounding her.
The Little Friend is concerned with childhood and its uneasy contact with the adult world. Despite the peripatetic frenzy, which grates at times, there is precision in Tartt’s watchful prose, as she describes the loneliness of childhood. Harriet is an unlovely Scout. Her mother, Charlotte, who is drugged on her grief, ignores her and her father lives in Memphis with another woman. She’s unpopular too–clever and bookish and rude. There is gentleness here, a light touch, in the deconstruction of her innocence, which is displayed in her clinical analysis and detachment from the horror of the murder. Tartt is at her best in the prologue which narrates the event. The delicate domino-like fall towards tragedy, in a family united by the terror of the unsaid, is beautifully caught in Tartt’s bold mastery of suspense.
This is an author who is not afraid to manipulate and to be seen doing so. She is perplexing to many, for she writes literature that is page turning–she’s a woman who doesn’t write about love or menstruation. Her novels cannot be pigeonholed into clear-cut genres. The Little Friend is a children’s adventure romp, a murder mystery, a would-be epic. It is not giving anything away to say that it isn’t satisfying as a thriller. Just as Harriet observes a half-etched picture of half-truths and Houdini-like concealments, so too the reader is left with a plot which frustrates in its elegant embracing of ellipse and uncertainty. But the meticulous detail, which gives such depth to the portrayal of a South in transition, is an inadequate substitute for pacing.
Indeed, the detail sometimes veers to camp, most notably in the bloody finale. Some would say that this is inherent to any portrayal of the Deep South, where the cliches from the literary baggage are close to the truth. But The Little Friend is unashamed of the heritage of its subject matter. It is gloriously ambitious in its scope and style, and the symphonic narrative feels truer to Tartt than the first person account of The Secret History.