TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 1 March 2017
In a strange way, this book, for me, resembles a sort of inverse curate’s egg. Yes it has some not so good bits, but overall it’s so good that it deserves an excellent rating. To put it another way, this will be about the most qualified 5 star review I’ve ever written.
It tells the story of the Cleve/Dusfresenes family in a small Mississippi town, at a time which it slowly emerges is sometime in the early seventies. In a prologue, set twelve years before the main narrative, Tartt tells of the death of the beloved nine year old Robin, murdered and left hanging from a tree in the family garden.
As the main narrative opens, the Dusfresnes family has disintegrated. Father, Dix, has left home, mother Charlotte is still disconnected from life by her grief, and Robin’s sisters Allison, and Harriet, who was a baby at the time of his death, are left to run free. What adult supervision they receive comes from a matriarchal network with Grandmother at the head of a network of aunts and great aunts, a hive of eccentricity.
The early part of the book is a stunningly beautiful, but exquisitely painful description of the minor tragedies of childhood and the agonies of adolescence. In one particularly poignant and touching moment, Allison runs from the confusing trauma of the first time a boy tries to kiss her, and seeks solace in a bed stuffed with soft toys.
Tartt however, chooses Harriet as her main protagonist, and in a wonderfully concise phrase says “Harriet wasn’t pretty but she was smart”, so giving the reader a clear picture of the little girl who will figure at the centre of what is to come. The central thrust of the novel is Harriet, avoiding being sent to a Baptist Summer Camp decides to revenge Robin’s murder and fixates on the Ratliff family, firmly from the other side of the tracks, as the culprits. In turn, Danny Ratliff, paranoid from protecting the family drugs business and from the effects of taking those drugs becomes aware of Harriet, and not knowing who she is, becomes equally fixated on her. Thus starts a battle of wills which starts as an Enid Blyton-esque story with Harriet and her sidekick Hely setting out to unravel the mystery, but which very rapidly descends into something much, much darker.
This is definitely one of those books where the blurb on the cover misleads. I was expecting a mystery story, with Harriet inspired by Treasure Island and Houdini. What one gets is a thriller in which Treasure Island and Houdini are mentioned in passing, and only the latter has any significant impact on the plot. To get any kind of feel for what the book resembles I would point to two wildly different authors. Harriet, a feisty tomboy in a southern setting could be Scout Finch’s darker second cousin. The gothic criminality brings to mind Particia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta thrillers.
Around the time of the publication of the Goldfinch, I heard an interview with Tartt in which she described the process of writing as being, for her, as being like painter a mural with a nail varnish brush. Her dense and detailed style is very much to the fore here, describing the sun bleached, dust scratched world of the deep south. But from within the detail, the occasional sentence or phrase flashes brilliantly into view. I was particularly taken, at a funeral, by a reference to characters’ “brisk expertise in the protocol of grief”.
Tartt’s other great strength is in character, the Goldfinch gave us the glorious Boris, and here Harriet is a fascinating heroine, a Tartt classic, arguably aspirationally autobiographical as the feisty but bookish little girl. The aunts and great aunts are massively entertaining, and the Ratliff family, while possibly leaning in the direction of stereotype, also look recognisably Trump-ian, even if they are 40 years early.
I am not sure if plotting and narrative are strengths or weaknesses of Tartt’s writing. Certainly the intricacy of her description means that pace is not one of her virtues, but equally, if one has time, it is a pleasure to be able to sink into the depths of her world. Also, her works are unashamedly literary, but her plots verge on the melodramatic. When it comes here to speeding cars, flying snakes and homicidal juniors inadvertently attacking septuagenarians, I did find myself asking “Really?”
As a final note, amidst the intricate imagery and symbolism, I have to say that any books which sees the sympathetic treatment of cats as a metaphor for humanity and vice versa gets my vote.