Monday, 12 January 2015

The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt

The Little Friend
What with all the praise and accolades (rightly) heaped on last year’s The Goldfinch, and the almost cult classic status of her debut novel The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend unfortunately suffers from a book version of middle child syndrome; kind of neglected, unjustly ignored and considered unspectacular when compared to its siblings. I’m pleased to expose this (what I’ve found to be quite widespread) idea as nonsense.

Ok, so The Little Friend doesn't have the intellectual whydunnit of its predecessor, or the stylish epic scope of its follow-up, but it’s a brilliant “Southern Gothic” novel in its own right that manages to make an engaging little detective out of a semi-feral 12 year old girl. TLF got me right out of a reading funk (The Little Stranger, don’t bother) from the very first page, and the lively host of characters kept me right on track to the last chapter.

The prologue starts on an ordinary, sultry day in 1964 Mississippi. From the first line, it’s intensely ominous, even before the thunderstorm- we immediately get the sense that something tragic happened on that Mother’s Day and that guilt, blame and loss have been lurking in the Cleve household ever since. The prologue goes on to reveal the mysterious death of 9 year old golden boy and prodigal son Robin, found hanging from a tree in what’s assumed to be a murder. Only it’s a murder with absolutely no suspects or evidence at all, witnessed only by a traumatised 4 year old that has since repressed the memory to such an extent she remembers a white sheet blowing in the wind and no more.

Skipping 12 years, we meet the real protagonist Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, raised communally by a trio of bustling great aunts and a very severe Grandmother (whom Harriet is said to resemble intensely), in a crumbling house stuffed with newspapers. Harriet’s mother has never recovered from the day of the murder, spending months at a time in a dreamy depression, confined to her bed and neglecting her family and household. Likened to Jim Harkness of Treasure Island by the author, Harriet is a sort of contemporary Tom Sawyer; a wilderness exploring, grubby footed and sharp-tonged wildling, not to mention adventure story aficionado. Harriet vows to her enamoured and awe-struck friend Hely to track down her brother’s killer and avenge him, craving justice the old fashioned way. Having put in some research and questioned those that knew her brother, Harriet concludes the killer is Danny Ratliff, once a classmate of Robin’s now recently released from prison back into his notoriously good-for-nothing family. She pursues him, Hely at her side, to some unexpected and thoroughly perilous ends.

On the surface it’s quite a simple story of revenge, investigation and justice, but the whole novel seethes with a heat and an anger that seems less to do with Harriet’s thirst for vengeance for her practically sainted brother (she never really knew him being still in a cradle at the time of his murder) but with her frustration at the workings of the adult world. Fatherless, essentially motherless, deserted by her beloved housekeeper Ida Rhew, Harriet has never had stability or boundaries. Beaten in life by one circumstance or another, Harriet sees adulthood as a kind of defeat; the adults around her have no power or control so she seizes it for herself.

I absolutely loved this novel and raced through its pages. The characters are so skilfully drawn- Grandmother Edie and Harriet in particular; wily and skilled manipulators who know their own minds and won’t budge from their convictions, but resourceful and fiercely intelligent. The Ratliff’s too were brilliantly executed- pathetically impoverished, no prospects, no expectations, but despite the cruelty of the elder brother Farish, it’s hard to not feel sympathy for a family so reduced and so utterly without means of elevation. Their caring for their youngest brother with severe learning difficulties proves that they are not without feeling. I loved how Tartt can somehow make a setting feel both thoroughly familiar and understandable, but simultaneously murky with secrets and mystery. Alexandria, MI is a buzzing tapestry of small-town life, but the crumbling legacy of the old families, the neglect, the unresolved murder and the underlying trauma of that makes it seem threatening and moody at the same time. The whole novel has a sticky, feverish dream like quality to it; The endless hot summer, the gibberish nonsense spoken by dazed, drug addled or unconscious characters, the exotic danger of the snakes and guns.

All in all, it’s a worthy middle child novel, hugely different from its siblings, but that just proves the sheer range of the author. The Little Friend has introduced me to one of my favourite child protagonists since Scout Finch- I loved the fearlessness and the conflict of the innocence and independence in the character. It’s a long book, but the sheer quality of the prose sustains it brilliantly. Oh the prose. Nobody writes like Tartt. A single line can be funny, heartbreaking and violent all at once. Read it- it's not the poor relation many readers have had me believe.

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