In 1992, Donna Tartt took the publishing world by storm with her debut novel, The Secret History. So enthusiastic were both her fans and her publisher that they all waited breathlessly for her next novel. Finally, ten years later, Tartt has published The Little Friend, with readers and the publishing world looking to see if it is worth the wait.
At the heart of Tartt’s The Little Friend is a mystery and the effect it has on one family. Set in Alexandria, Mississippi, during the 1970’s, the novel recounts the death of Robin, nine years old and left hanging from a tree by an unknown murderer twelve years earlier. His family is devastated; in the intervening years his mother, Charlotte, has withdrawn from everybody and leaves the daily care of her two daughters to Ida, the family maid; his father, Dix, abandons the family entirely except for holiday visits. Allison, now sixteen, sleeps as much as possible and cannot remember anything about the murder. That leaves Harriet, twelve years old and book smart, as the only family member who still wants to know who killed Robin.
Harriet is fascinated by the characters she reads about in books by Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle and by the real-life magician Harry Houdini, who later in life was committed to revealing the spiritualists of his day for the con artists they really were. Harriet is compelled to solve the murder both because solving her brother’s murder is the right thing to do and because her overactive imagination tells her that it is. Harriet wants to solve it so she can be like one of those people she reads about who do great and heroic things. Furthermore, while practicing Houdini’s trick of holding her breath for long periods of time, she hallucinates yet another person she read about, Arctic explorer Captain Robert Scott, who tells Harriet that she is the only one who can solve Robin’s mystery.
All of these ideas begin to percolate in Harriet’s mind until she convinces herself that she can reveal who killed her brother. She questions Allison, who was four at the time of Robin’s death and was in the yard when it happened. She thinks that Allison may remember something in her dreams; Harriet tries to get Allison to keep a dream diary by writing down everything as soon as she wakes up, but Allison, like everyone else, is not interested. Finally, because of something Ida says, it hits her out of the blue: The killer is Robin’s playmate, Danny Ratliff, who is now twenty years old and a drug user. The fact that she does not have any proof of Danny’s involvement does nothing to her determination to seek out revenge on Danny. Her revenge is the Old Testament version—an eye for an eye—and she is determined that Danny must die, proof or no. With her friend Hely at her side, Harriet sets out to kill Danny any way she can. At first, her attempts to kill him come across as nothing more than little-kid schemes that go awry, but soon they become very serious and deadly.
To everybody of Harriet’s social class, the Ratliffs are the lowest form of life around, and Tartt does everything in her writing power to make that point come across. Danny’s family, with the exception of his youngest brother Curtis (who is simple-minded) are all drug runners and other assorted lowlifes. The fact that Danny is from the poorer side of town makes him stand out even more, even though Harriet herself is of the same social stature financially, if not socially. If Harriet is poor, though, Danny is dirt-poor, a lower class of poor; in a place where social stature is everything, even these little differences are important to everybody Harriet knows, and even to Harriet herself.
Tartt fills in the rest of Harriet’s world with grandmothers, aunts, housekeepers, and other people and places. Setting is one thing that Tartt sets out to establish with great detail, and for the most part it works. Tartt introduces many supporting characters and gets inside their heads through her use of the third-person omniscient point of view. Tartt seems to be implying is that, in the South, everybody has an opinion about everything (including who killed Robin); Tartt gives the reader each character’s opinion about whatever is happening to him or her at the time. This omniscient point of view at first seems fine, but then characters the reader has become intersted in are no longer that important. For...
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