Donna Tartt’s ‘The Little Friend’ begins with a prologue describing the Edenic existence of the Cleve family: the prattle of the assembly of aunt; the happiness of Charlotte, Dix and their three children; the youthful zest of their eldest, the red-haired, freckled, nine year-old Robin who steals the hearts of all his family members with his boundless energy. This irreplaceable idyll is destroyed when Robin is found hanging from a noose at the bottom of the family garden.
A killer is never found, and the enigmatic circumstances surrounding Robin’s death eat away at the Cleve family until the family unit becomes but a pale imitation of its former glory, which is how they appear twelve years later in the novel’s opening chapter. By this point it is Charlotte’s mother, the stern Edie, who has taken the responsibility amongst the multitude of aunts to help bring up Charlotte’s two daughters, Allison, 16, and Harriet, 12. Their father has escaped the family remains by relocating to Nashville due to ‘work’, while their mother, a flatulent mess, spends her day hermetically cooped up in her bedroom wilfully passing the hours away. Allison, in the vein of her mother, has also taken on a dreamy existence of ever-elongating periods of sleep and a complete heedlessness to the goings-on of life around her. The plot thus envelops Charlotte’s youngest daughter, Harriet, who
‘had been a slightly distressing presence in the Cleve household… not disobedient, exactly, or unruly, but she was haughty and somehow managed to irritate nearly every adult with whom she came into contact’.
An insatiably inquisitive soul, Harriet pledges to unravel the mystery surrounding her brother’s death and to kill the man who took his life. Yet as we proceed through the novel’s 555 pages, Harriet’s investigation is soon playing second fiddle to the maturing development of her own personality, which is intriguing and fixates the reader’s imaginative eye.
‘The Little Friend’ is Tartt’s attempt at a Southern Gothic novel
One of the many aspects I adore about Tartt’s novel is the precision and realism her descriptive prose. For some readers I can understand this neo-Victorian style with its attention to detail being tedious and tiring and if you prefer a zipping fast plot and lots of action, you should probably give this one a miss. But if you, like me, are enamoured of poetic language and gorgeously crafted prose then you will (I hope) appreciate the splendour of Tartt’s craft. Her attention to detail is also evident in the development of Harriet’s psyche which can almost be charted due to the novel’s detailing of her daily life. For example, the reader quickly becomes aware of Harriet’s bookish personality and her admiration for heroes such as Sherlock Holmes and Robert Scott. Scott in particular fixates Harriet’s imagination and it is fascinating to correlate Harriet’s growing relationship with Scott’s explorations and her own increasing courage as she plots and carries out the investigation into her brother’s death.
The only reservation I had about the novel is its denouement. What happens at the novel’s climax is all very well and good, but for me it ended with rather too many questions left unanswered. Nevertheless, the final twist and Harriet’s anagnorisis are poignant. For me, in that moment of realisation and clarity, Harriet almost becomes an anti-hero, as her relentless pursuit for justice is completely undone and by this point Harriet could be deemed to be the novel’s villain. Overall I would say that Tartt’s second novel is more mature than her début, ‘The Secret History’, and that the true beauty of ‘The Little Friend’ lies in Tartt’s inimitable talent for description and language.