Saturday, 15 November 2003

Donna Tartt: The Little Friend (2002)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 2002
Review number: 1197

The Cleve family, at the centre of this novel, has been shaped by events about a decade before its beginning, when nine-year old Robin was brutally murdered during a Mother's Day family get-together. In all this time, no killer has been found. Robin's memory has been idolised, his mother has become depressive, and his younger sisters have been brought up by their grandmother and her sisters, and by the household servant. (Their father has moved away and lives with his mistress.) The novel itself is the story of his youngest sister Harriet's twelfth year, when she determines to find out the truth about Robin's death, fired up by reading Sherlock Holmes and the adventure stories of Kipling and Stevenson.

The geographical setting of the novel, a small town in the American state of Mississippi, is very strong and atmospheric. The Cleves were once the wealthiest family in the region, but now their fortunes have faded after their big house (with the ill-omened seeming name Tribulation) burnt to the ground. They are still well enough off to keep servants, however, even if only one to each of the sisters' households. The town is divided between three very culturally different groups: the rich whites, the poor whites, and the blacks, the last group playing only small roles in The Little Friend (the Cleves' servants being among the least developed characters).

The chronological setting of the novel seems more undefined. At times, it seems to be chronicling events as far back as the twenties and thirties; other parts seem to be set in the fifties, and occasional references mean that it must be meant to be at least the mid-seventies. This is partly because Harriet and her sister are being brought up by a group of elderly women always looking back to the past - both to the time when Robin was alive and to the glory days of the Cleve family. The American deep south, particularly the poorer rural areas, was also a place which was a bit old-fashioned and conservative. There may also be other reasons why the timing seems indeterminate other than these ones to do with the setting; The Secret History, Tartt's first novel, also had something of an old-fashioned air to it, so she may well be someone who likes that ambiance; and here there may also be something of a desire to evoke some of the famous writers of the South, such as Faulkner and Lee.

The Secret History became one of the biggest success stories of nineties fiction immediately it was published, and its many fans will have been eagerly awaiting the followup for over a decade; Donna Tartt is an extremely un-prolific author. The big question that everybody who was interested would have had, then, was whether it was worth the wait.

When The Secret History came out, it seemed different, original and exciting in a new way. Looking back on it now (as a much more widely read individual), it doesn't seem so original (it could be described as "if John Fowles wrote an American campus novel..."), but that I remember it clearly without having reread it in the interim is a tribute to how well it was written. The Little Friend is just as well written, and is a very good picture of a weird family life as seen through the eyes of a child who doesn't really understand it or what makes it so strange. The detection part of the novel, though clearly a part a satire on books for children which have teenage detectives, doesn't really work and gives the impression that it's not one of the aspects of the story which interested the author (which is a contrast to The Secret History). The sense that Harriet and her friend Hely end up getting swept along by something much bigger than they expected is good, however. The Little Friend is much more mainstream than Tartt's debut, even though it has proved less popular. It is also less easy to think of obvious parallels to it (one, Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, was published a year later). The Little Friend is a good novel, an interesting read, but it does not stand out in the way that The Secret History did.

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