The Little Friend
New Fiction Donna Tartt
A decade ago, Donna Tartt called her debut novel The Secret History, but she could have just as easily repeated the title for her long-awaited follow-up. Full of secrets and lies and unpleasant revelations, The Little Friend is a masterfully written Southern gothic mystery that meanders far from its central plot as it opens closet after closet in a small Mississippi town to drag out the skeletons inside.
The first 100 pages reek of death and are written with such necromantic melancholy that it seeps with a mournful resonance that may turn some readers off. But those who stick with it will be rewarded with a glimpse into the shadows of the human condition, rendered clearly by a gifted writer only too eager to turn down the lights.
The book begins with the Mother's Day murder of a 9-year-old boy, found hanging from a tree in his family's backyard. Twelve years later, with the crime unsolved, Dad is mostly gone, Mom is doped-up and detached, and the eldest sister--who may have witnessed the killing but remembers nothing--is a diffident and lonely girl who spends most of her day sleeping.
The lone sibling left with any spirit is 12-year-old Harriet, barely an infant that notorious Mother's Day. Brainy, stubborn, and supremely self-confident, Harriet sets out to solve the murder and wreak retribution upon the deserving. Things do not go as planned. She finds a bad guy, alright, but it's not the right bad guy, and her investigation uncovers other crimes that ultimately place the tweener detective in mortal danger.
But that's just a sketch of a book with two handfuls of story to tell. The plot digressions in this literate and increasingly suspenseful novel are so successful that by the time The Little Friend ends, solving the murder is almost an afterthought. This proves to be not a narrative flaw but a sign of Tartt's enviable skill as a compelling and disciplined storyteller. So many characters are introduced, their personalities and situations deftly drawn, that as lives intersect and subplots interweave, the horrors of the past recede in the face of more immediate perils.
While a few passages border on the overwritten constructs of a show-off, it's impossible to damn Tartt for being too talented. Though her sensibilities are inherently dark, she possesses an offhand wit that is both keen and appropriate at unexpected moments. She has a knack for getting inside her characters' minds and altering her prose to reflect the inner diction of each. This is one key reason Tartt so perfectly captures the queer, kaleidoscopic qualities of several iconic Southern personalities, from the bigoted matriarch to the self-righteous Bible-beating salesman to the hard-partying Trans Am-driving Lynyrd Skynyrd fan.
Ultimately, The Little Friend remains uncompromising and unsettling to its bitter but satisfying end. Like The Secret History, Donna Tartt's second book is ultimately about the how knowledge crushes innocence and wisdom brings great pain. In her hands, however, it's also about genius.