Almost 20 years ago I stumbled upon Donna Tartt’s fantastic novel The Secret History, a novel which has stayed with me all these years. Having recently finished her second novel (and I believe there was almost ten years between the two books), I now have an overwelming desire to re-read The Secret History to see if it’s as good as I remember. I wonder if I’ll be saying the same thing about The Little Friend in 20 years?
There’s no doubt, Tartt is a talented writer. The Little Friend is a gorgeous book, certainly a book to linger over. (It’s over 600 pages long.) It concerns 12 year old Harriet Dufresnes. On Mother’s Day, when Harriet is just an infant, her older brother, Robin, is found hanging from a tree in the yard. His murderer is never found. Harriet has decided that she will discover who has killed her brother because while she is neither pretty or sweet, Harriet is smart.
The Little Friend is a densely-written, slow-moving novel. Set in Alexandria, Mississippi in the 1970s, the novel evokes the period (without bothering to fuss with specific details) and sets a tone which it sustains throughout. Harriet is surrounded by a cast of eccentric characters including her grandmother, Edie and Edie’s unmarried sisters. Harriet’s mother, Charlotte, has never fully recovered from the loss of her son. Harriet’s father, Dix, has long since removed himself to Nashville. Harriet’s best friend, Hely, is her constant companion. Harriet’s family once had money, but they don’t any longer. They all have ‘negro’ help, though. The maid/cook/surrogate mother in Harriet’s household is Ida Rhew and Harriet loves her fiercely.
On the other side of town live the Ratliff’s: Farish, Eugene, Danny and Curtis. Farish runs a meth lab out of a trailer on the property. Eugene is a self-proclaimed preacher and Danny is addicted to the drug his brother produces. Curtis is Harriet’s age and a little on the slow side. Harriet decides that Danny is responsible for her brother’s death – something Ida told her reinforces her belief that Danny hated Robin. She and Hely set out to prove his guilt and exact their revenge.
The Little Friend isn’t really about Harriet’s quest to find a murderer, though. It is about Harriet on the cusp of adulthood; about that long, hot summer between innocence and experience. This is a novel about loss. Harriet has more to lose than she might have thought and what she learns about herself and others surely shapes the woman she will become.
This is a novel to savor. It evokes a time and place that is both familiar and exotic. I have to say, though, that when the end came I didn’t feel all together rewarded for my time and effort. But maybe that’s exactly what it feels like to leave childhood behind.