The Little Friend
First edition cover
|Cover artist||Chip Kidd|
|October 22, 2002|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover and Paperback)|
|LC Class||PS3570.A657 L58 2002|
|Preceded by||The Secret History|
|Followed by||The Goldfinch|
Superficially, The Little Friend is a mystery adventure, centered on a young girl, Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, living in Mississippi in the early 1970s and her implicit anxieties about the unexplained death of her brother Robin, who was killed by hanging in 1964 at the age of nine. The dynamics of Harriet's extended family are a strong focus of the novel, as are the lifestyles and customs of contrasting Southerners.
In 2002, Tartt described it as "a frightening, scary book about children coming into contact with the world of adults in a frightening way... After The Secret History I wanted to write a different kind of book on every single level. I wanted to take on a completely different set of technical problems. The Secret History was all from the point of view of Richard, a single camera, but the new book is symphonic, like War And Peace. That's widely thought to be the most difficult form."
Harriet and her sister have been raised largely by their grandmother Edie, a bevy of adoring great-aunts, and the family's longtime housekeeper, Ida Rhew. (Robin's death sent the girls' mother into a dreamy depression from which she has never awakened, and their father lives with a mistress in Nashville, returning home only at Christmas.) Harriet, who looks like a "small badger," is the sort of child who likes to read about Genghis Khan and Captain Scott and to stir up fights among her great-aunts by telling them what they really think of each other's Christmas gifts. But she, too, has grown up obsessed with her brother's death, which she blames for the disintegration of her family. Left to her own devices for the summer, she resolves to track down and punish Robin's killer, whom she decides, based on the most circumstantial indications, must be Danny Ratliff, a former classmate of Robin's (the "little friend" of the title) who has sunk into a life of petty crime. As Harriet trails Danny around town (there are shades of Harriet the Spy here), waiting for the right moment to strike, he becomes equally obsessed with her, convinced that she is out to get him for an entirely different reason.
Reviewing in the New Republic, Ruth Franklin introduced the major characters as she outlined the plot:
- The prologue of The Little Friend describes the murder of nine-year-old Robin Cleve Dufresnes; or rather, it describes the circumstances surrounding Robin's murder, because the crime itself is witnessed only by his two sisters, the infant Harriet and the four-year-old Allison, who has repressed whatever she saw to such an extent that it appears in her dreams only as a white sheet. When the novel proper begins, twelve years later, that terrible day has hardly faded; as in The Secret History, the impact of a person on those close to him is far greater in death than it was in life. And again Tartt is obsessed with crimes that go unpunished: Robin's killing reverberates in the various acts of depravity that ripple throughout the book, from emotional betrayal to, finally, another murder.
- What this all adds up to is a tragic, fever-dream realism. Though the world Harriet discovers is unquestionably haunted, there is nothing magical about it, or about the furious, lyrical rationality of Tartt's voice. Her book is a ruthlessly precise reckoning of the world as it is -- drab, ugly, scary, inconclusive -- filtered through the bright colors and impossible demands of childhood perception. It grips you like a fairy tale, but denies you the consoling assurance that it's all just make-believe. Comparisons, in any case, are beside the point. This novel may be a hothouse flower, but like that fatal black tupelo tree, it has its own authority, its own darkness. This was the hallmark of Harriet's touch, Hely reflects. She could scare the daylights out of you, and you weren't even sure why. Harriet's gift is also Tartt's. The Little Friend might be described as a young-adult novel for grown-ups, since it can carry us back to the breathless state of adolescent literary discovery, when we read to be terrified beyond measure and, through our terror, to try to figure out the world and our place in it.
- David Hare review in Guardian Unlimited (October 27, 2002)
- Oxonian Review: "Donna Tartt's Confused Little Friend"