Thursday, 9 April 2009

The Little Friend - Donna Tartt

You know the feeling of sticking your hand in a sack of grain? The engulfing sense of texture that surrounds your fingers, comfortingly close, smooth yet strangely rough, tactile and claustrophobic, and ultimately entirely satisfying. Donna Tartt’s prose is like that. Her plots are dense, with so many themes tied together that it can feel as though the events are crowding around you, happening just out of your sight. There is no other author who so easily marries excitement and intrigue with sumptuous description and literary reference. As it was with The Secret History, so it is with The Little Friend. There is something for absolutely everyone here, whether you are looking for the excitement of a murder mystery or the insight and subtle illusions of literary fiction.

With The Secret History, Donna Tartt achieved the unusual combination of critical acclaim and international success. Her second novel, The Little Friend, a decade in the writing, was finally published in 2002. It tells the tale of Harriet, a precocious twelve year old whose once wealthy family is still reeling from the death of her older brother Robin when she was a baby. Since then her father has moved to another city, her mother can barely raise herself from bed long enough to smoke a cigarette and her elder sister Alison is so timid she barely says a word. So Harriet, accompanied by her only friend Hely, sets out to solve the riddle of Robin’s mysterious murder and reap vengeance on the man she suspects. But with her comfortable family life falling apart all around her Harriet is forced to face up to the adult world, with all its complexity and ambiguity. The result is a delicious journey through the internal world of a twelve year old girl, as she struggles to locate her place in the wider world.

The complex plot and myriad themes keep the reader guessing to the end but this is a less intense offering than The Secret History. At 555 pages of tiny print it is far longer and much slower. Much of it is taken up with building the setting and developing a real sense of the characters and their small Mississippi town. Harriet is brilliantly construed, her thought process and intense emotions feel incredibly familiar and believable.

However, it is also a little too long and there are passages in the middle which you feel could have been better edited. It is not as good as The Secret History, partly because the claustrophobia and mystery is often broken by the slow pace. However, as it builds to its convergent climax the last hundred or so pages are as good as anything she has written and the lack of a conclusive ending leaves the reader guessing. Donna Tartt has claimed that she does reveal the identity of Robin’s murder somewhere in the plot, but if that is the case then few people have discovered the answer. That is one of the best things about this, the density of plot construction and sheer number of recurring ideas mean this is a book to read and then reread again and again. Donna Tartt is a joy to read, one of the best present day writers anywhere in the world. Read her stuff…read it now!

7 out of 10


jojlove said...

Hello, could I ask you if you know the identity of Robin's murder? Though I love this book, there are some passages I do not fully understand because English is not my mother tongue. Thanks.

Sam Ruddock said...

Your English is perfectly good because the point of the ending is, as far as I see it, that not only do you never know the identity of his murderer, but that you are never entirely sure it isn't hidden somewhere within the text and you were just too blind to notice it.

I love that ambiguity, that uncertainty, that sense that there is no need for an answer, that the quest to find the truth is enough.

jojlove said...

Thanks for the reply. I do love the ambiguity of the ending. But after knowing that (from your blog) Donna Tartt has claimed that she does reveal the identity of Robin’s murder, it makes me curious and want to know the murderer... Thanks anyway. Love your book reviews.