on 26 October 2002
The Little Friend is Donna Tartt's long awaited second novel after The Secret History. Though it shares a dense prose style with the earlier book, it is quite different in atmosphere and setting. A twelve year old girl, Harriet, spends a summer in the 1970s trying to find out who killed her brother Robin 12 years before. She has her own ideas about who is reponsible and with her friend Hely she sets about proving her suspicions. But what starts out as a fairly simple idea becomes ever more complicated, due to the large intertwining cast of characters around Harriet. She finds herself buffeted about by the adults around her. This is no simple whodunnit. It is a book about moving from childhood innocence towards maturity and adulthood, something Harriet has been dreading as she looks on her approaching puberty with horror. It is also a book about morality, and actions and consequences. But perhaps more than anything it is a book about family, an old southern family torn apart by the grief that still haunts them twelve years after the death of their golden child. They are living in the era after the civil rights movement, when people have had to adapt to new ways of living, and yet the traditional racism is still evident in the relationships between the book's family and their black housekeepers, which Harriet witnesses in shame and anger.The pacing of this book is up and down. Gripping at times, but slow in other places due to long dense sections of description, sometimes beautifully written, other times wearing and dull. The last hundred pages or so are hard to put down, and there are a number of tense, dramatic and somtimes darkly humorous scenes right through the book. The character of Harriet is extremely well drawn, and sympathetic, as is her friend Hely and the Ratliff family. Is The Little Friend as good as The Secret History? It lacks the first book's focus. As a novel centred on a young southern girl and a murder it also doesn't live up to Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. But it is nevertheless a good novel, painted on a wider and more ambitious canvas than the first book.
Donna Tartt, novelist, essayist, critic, and author of the blockbuster "The Secret History" brings a uniquely personal understanding to her reading of "The Little Friend."
A richly imagined story of familial ties and the pursuit of truth, Ms. Tartt's latest offering is sure to bring additional plaudits. No doubt, readers and listeners will find it well worth the decade long wait since Ms. Tartt's superlative debut novel. When asked why it took her ten years to write "The Little Friend," the author replied in part, "There's an expectation these days that novels - like any other consumer product - should be made on a production line, with one dropping from the conveyor belt every couple of years. But it's for every writer to decide his own pace, and the pace varies with the writer and the work.......When I was young, I was deeply struck by a piece of advice that John Gardner gave to beginning writers: ‘Write as if you have all eternity.' This is the last thing a publisher or an agent or an accountant would tell you, but it's the best advice in the world if you want to write beautiful, well-made books. And that's what I want to do. I'd rather write one good book than ten mediocre ones."
It would seem that Ms. Tartt is incapable of penning even a mediocre phrase, as her latest story attests - it is compelling, and memorable.
Nine-year-old Robin Cleve Dufresnes is found dead, hanging from a tupelo tree in his family's yard. Harriet was a mere baby when her brother's body was discovered, and his killer has never been found.
The boy's death virtually destroyed his mother who has turned inward and become a recluse; his father disappeared from the community where this tragedy occurred. Thus, Harriet and another sister, Allison, have been left to grow very much on their own. Their lives have been overseen by a black maid and a coterie of female relative, including a stern grandmother.
Twelve-year-old Harriet determines to catch her brother's murderer, deciding that it is Danny Ratliff. After all he comes from a family of down-at-the-heels criminals. Harriet and her good friend, Hely, begin to stalk the Ratliffs, a tactic which leads them into great danger.
Set in 1970s Mississippi, "The Little Friend" underscores the author's considerable gifts, not the least of which are her command of language, elegant prose, and mastery of suspense.
on 10 November 2009
Be aware: this isn't The Secret History.
But it is a very evocative book that reminded me simultaneously of To Kill a Mockingbird (a story told from a child's point of view) and Fargo (farcial criminals).
Twelve year old Harriet, fierce and determined, sets out to find the murderer of her older brother who died when she was a baby. Latching on to snippets of information, she sets her sights on Danny, a drugged-up-to-the-eyeballs criminal. Following him, haunting him, she can't see the consequences of her impulsive actions.
It's a self-indulgently long book, yet I couldn't stop reading it. The characters are richly individual. The setting of Mississippi was interesting - for a while I had a hard time figuring out the time period of the book. But what was particularly evocative for me was the long summer holiday - hot seemingly endless days, not much to do, kids looking for excitement...
Don't expect non-stop thrills, or an enthralling plot-line. It's a slow-burn, a twisting journey, beautifully written. I'm happy to have read it.
I'm astonished at so many negative and lukewarm reviews of this novel. It seems to me to be a quite outstanding achievement, exquisitely written and totally gripping. The attempts to fix it in a narrow genre and then to fault it for falling short of the commonplaces of that genre seem to me absurd. It is not a "whodunit" and no more is it southern gothic, a pretty vague area at best. Rather it is unique, rising above pigeon-holing.
I confess that after so much enjoying "The Secret History", I bypassed "The Little Friend", and moved directly to "The Goldfinch", largely on account of the apparent lack of enthusiasm shown in the reviews. After "The Goldfinch" I found it hard to believe that this author could in between these two fine novels write something of little worth. How right that intuition proved to be. I wonder whether other readers might have been similarly put off, perhaps to the extent of avoiding this novel altogether.
Now, I'm inclined to think it the finest of the three. It has depth, great intelligence and the keenest perception and sensitivity. It also reveals the most generous of human sympathies. Tartt moves apparently effortlessly between the niceties of extended family life to scenes of breath-taking action. It's a wonderful evocation of Mississippi small town life as it is of two dysfunctional, but very different families. Nowhere is there a false note or a trace of sentimentality. I wouldn't have it a page shorter.
on 1 November 2002
Donna Tartt obviously faced a potentially difficult task living up to the expectations generated for her second book by the success of the first - the astonishing Secret History - and the ten year wait only heightened the hype, and the potential fall. However, she has once again delivered a quietly stunning read.
This time, rather than the rarefied elegance of Hampden College, and the beautiful but alien setting of Vermont, she chooses the more familiar fictional landscape of the South - the gothic, Faulkner-esque South - as a backdrop, and the elements of the plot are appropriately dark - the decaying family, the shadows cast by a tragic death. But, while elements in the novel are familiar and carry echoes of literary heritage, the story is never predictable (inevitable, possibly; but predictable, no) and her writing is neither pretentious, portentous, nor dull. There are of course parallels that can be drawn with The Secret History - the hero/heroine as outsider, the wildness and rage lurking just below a civilised veneer - but as this is obviously destined for many a Lit. class and companion study notes let's leave the detailed analysis for now.
I started this - and it is a huge tome, with surprisingly small print - late at night, intending just to read a few pages, and several chapters later was still glued to it. Her ear for dialogue and ability to sketch the off-beat quirks of day-to-day existence round the margins of a gripping story is still as strong as ever. Absolutely unmissable: bound to become a classic.
on 14 April 2015
The American Southern states, their class divisions, race division and religious peculiarities are the biggest characters of this book, the plot is built around the repercussions of a murder, the unsolved murder of a child, the reverberations of this death through the years and the family struggling to make sense of of the unthinkable. How it affects his sister Harriet and her world, perceived and real, where her obsession with the murder grow into unexpected and dangerous consequences.
I found the first part of the book unfocused and overly long, with an entire section about poisonous snakes and the religious use of them in some Southern churches a bit too much. The second part of the book was more energetic and entertaining but again undefined in its aim and message.
on 6 October 2003
This book is frustrating. The first hundred pages are great - they introduce a main character who is funny and smart placed in a community with a terrible history. At page 100 I was excited by the prospect of how Harriet powered by her imagination would unravel the mystery and cause an outpouring of chaos and disorder in the town.
Then instead of maybe another couple of hundred pages of drama and powerful conclusion 'The Little Friend' turns into a rambling bore of a novel - where I began counting the pages and feeling pleased I got through another half-inch of it.
I am sure the purpose of the middle section is to deepen the characters and the sense of place but many of these long passages are simply repetitions of other character/place development passages. I always thought brevity was a virtue and repetition a vice of literature and I'm sure Tartt's main aim here in writing this section was to write something 'long'. It's terrible to see her sacrifice all of the suspense and intrigue she has created initially but this is what she does.
I wonder if these 'hype' books get away with so much bad editing because of the writers ego or maybe because the 'hypers' haven't read anything better. In which case for a dramatic and evocative vision of the south I recommend Flannery O'Connor's 'The Violent Bear it away' Daniel Woodrell's 'The Ones You Do' and Joe R Lansdale's 'The Bottoms'.
on 3 June 2003
Having relished every page of The Secret History, it was a painful 10 year wait for Tartt's follow up. Having got hold of my copy on the day of its release, I prepared to "enter in to the sublime". If only.
Tartt's sun bleached southern landscape, and unengaging characters were in such stark contract to the freshness and originality of her debut novel, I struggled to believe I was reading the same author. From the farcical redneck "bad guys", to the black stereotypes and wet family members, there seemed to be no single character in this entire story whom I wanted to know any better.
While the length of the Secret History made it like spending a long weekend with a dear friend, the Little Friend was more like a dull house guest who had overstayed its welcome. I couldn't find any strand of this story line interesting enough to cling too as I waded through it. While the quality of Tartt's prose is still a pleasure to read, it wasn't enough to bring life to this otherwise crashing bore of story.
If your curiosity really does get the better of you, please don't pay full price for this book. You'll regret it.
on 15 December 2002
I have just finished reading Donna Tartt's latest novel. I ts a work which borders on true greatness at times and it specialises in the superbly effective set-piece situation. Readers will never forget the horror of the loose snakes in The Mission, the eerie tranquility of Harriet's scanning of her neighbour's houses through the telescopic sight of a hunting rifle and the nerve-jangling tension of the climactic scene in the water tower.
Between these obvoius highlights the novel sucks you in, wraps around you and plunges you into the claustrophobic insularity of Mississippi in high summer. Yes, the characterization of Ida, Tatty and Eugene, for example, could be sharper and more obviously individualized but to denigrate the overall work on this account would be to miss the more subtle ironies of a clever creation. We have the child/adult world views painfully juxtaposed and, I think, we have a profound meditation upon the nature of retributive justice and recalled memory
Harriet is one of the more memorable creations in modern fiction, a dark, contemplative and driven little person who maybe shares some of the author's own life experiences.She will live with the reader long after the book has been read.
I recommend 'The Little Friend' as a gripping and thought-provoking read. It achieves what all good fiction should-that feeling of complete immersion and the knowledge that we are in the company of a writer who has an important tale to tell.
on 22 June 2005
It took me a very very long time to read this - it starts a bit slowly and is probably the kind of novel that you should take on holiday rather than read in little snippets. But once I got into it (on holiday!), I was totally absorbed. The most striking aspect of it to begin with was the incredibly evocative writing style, which has something almost poetic about it. Then, I was really taken with the author's ability to get inside the heads of some many completely different characters so convincingly. The real drama of the plot doesn't develop until the latter half of the book, but I found it completely compelling. This is one the best books that I have read in recent years and would recommend it to readers who are looking for a beautifully crafted novel. However, my husband could not get into it as there was not enough of a plot at the beginning to get him to read on, so it is not for everyone.