December 5, 2002

Dark Little Secret

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Horrifically entertaining and darkly intriguing, Donna Tartt’s second, long awaited novel, The Little Friend resolutely confirms Tartt’s ability to weave a masterful story. There can be little doubt that Tartt –like her Bennington classmate and friend, Bret Easton Ellis — is a brilliantly adept storyteller, able to transform the sadly mundane and lethargic into the fascinatingly murderous and devious.

Her first novel, the deftly written The Secret History, had the rather marked distinction of winning accolades from critics and the public alike in countries across the world, resulting in a publicity frenzy that saw her book translated into 24 languages within the span of a year. Her subsequent and notably long 10 year sabbatical however, (presumably taken to write her second book), had the critics pondering about her talent, her well being, and her ability to reproduce the phenomenal success of her debut novel. Yet, with the release of The Little Friend, Tartt might just be able to ward off her detractors and prove herself as more than a literary one hit wonder.

The book, set in 1970’s Alexandria, Miss., opens with the murder of ten year-old Robin Cleve Dufresnes, discovered morbidly hung in his own backyard. 12 years later, Robin’s family is still utterly devastated by the crime. His mother has become a somnambulant recluse taken to walking around the house in an eerily detached state, his father has left town and his sisters, Allison and Harriet are left to be brought up by their black maid, an imperious grandmother and a slew of batty ancient aunts. The 600 pages that follow are recounted from the perspective of the 12 year-old Harriet who becomes an incredibly astute, stubborn, and mature detective (accompanied by her best friend and accomplice, Hely), intent on solving the mystery of her brother’s death. With all the determination and willful gullibility of a child, Harriet arrives at the answer rather quickly and erratically, believing Danny Ratcliff, a red necked degenerate to be the obvious and only suspect of the crime. What initially starts out as an amusing whim of a precocious child, is quickly turned by Tartt, into a disconcertingly erudite look into southern values, family guilt, and social expectations that will eventually put Harriet in mortal danger and cause the plot to veer off into an entirely unexpected tangent.

Tartt keeps her narrative structure and plot in admirable control, and never allows the questionable credibility of a child’s perspective to turn into a farcical melodrama void of depth and complexity. Her construction of all the characters is skillfully achieved — each of the protagonists (and there are quite a few) is crafted and fleshed out with the same intimate handling and deliberate thought given to Harriet. More importantly, even the supposed evildoers, the Ratcliffs, are given a human credibility that prevents this novel from turning into a hackneyed battle of good versus evil.

While this book should be looked at and read as an entity in and of itself, it is hard and perhaps inevitable that some comparisons to The Secret History will be drawn and in doing so, The Little Friend does indeed fall short. The lucid perfection that characterized Tartt’s cyrstalline prose in The Secret History only reveals itself occasionally here. While it is to be given that the vast differences in the contexts, the plots and even the narrative structures of each book had a substantial effect on the prose style, there is still something flat and annoyingly clich