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Childhood Gothic: Donna Tartt's Long-Awaited Second Novel

by Jessica Jernigan, Borders

When Harriet Cleve Dufresnes was just a baby, her big brother Robin died. The circumstances of his death were macabre and perplexing—the boy was found hanging from a tree in his backyard—and Robin's unnatural absence still haunted everyone who loved him. His family, already unsettled by their transition from Southern aristocracy to something like middle-class moderns, never really recovered. For Harriet, happiness is the world before her brother's death, a dimly remembered time she learns about from faded snapshots. In the summer of her 12th year, Harriet decides to find her brother's killer.

The Little Friend is Donna Tartt's second novel. In the 10 years that have passed since her first novel, The Secret History, was published, the book and its creator have found a place in the popular imagination. A bestseller upon publication, The Secret History continues to beguile new readers with its contemporary Gothic tale of classics students gone wild, complete with pagan ritual and murder. On Web sites devoted to the author and her work, fans get together to gossip about the long-rumored movie version or Tartt's latest essay. Needless to say, The Little Friend has been the subject of much elated speculation.

Harriet is fearless. She has been raised mostly by her family's maid, Ida Rhew, who has fed her a diet of strange stories: "stories about drowned children, and ghosts in the woods, and the buzzard's hunting party; about gold-toothed raccoons that bit babies in their cradles, and bewitched saucers of milk that turned to blood in the night...." Tartt's new novel is, to some extent, a story about stories. Harriet's world, a world in which adults have little authority, is defined by stories. She loves Treasure Island and Sherlock Holmes, narratives of adventure, cunning, and vengeance featuring well-defined heroes and villains. When Harriet settles upon a suspect for her brother's murder, the evidence against him is slim, but his whole life since Robin's death seems to justify Harriet's enmity: Danny Ratliff is a bad man from a bad family. Harriet pursues the villain of her own story with childish conviction and ferocity.

A taste for frightening tales is something Tartt has in common with her young protagonist. "I was interested in accounts of true crime from early childhood. I love Conrad: lots of murders in Conrad—I think of Heart of Darkness and the skulls on Mr. Kurtz's fenceposts—and Dickens. Dickens was fascinated by true crime and wrote about murder very well." Tartt notes that murder has always been fascinating. "There are lots of murders in the Bible and in Greek tragedy and in Shakespeare. It seems to be a subject that has always drawn people, as long as people have been telling stories."

While both of her novels revolve around murders, Tartt is quick to point out that she does not write in the mystery genre. "I'm really not a mystery writer. A murder isn't the same thing as a mystery, and a mystery doesn't necessarily involve murder. Some of the greatest books about murder aren't mysteries at all—Crime and Punishment being the salient example—and vice versa. I love Conan Doyle, but though many of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries have murder at the bottom of them, many of them have nothing to do with murder at all—'The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,' for instance, or 'The Man with the Twisted Lip.'"

Harriet is clearly the heroine of The Little Friend, but all of the novel's characters are individuals with their own experiences and motivations. Tartt represents the inner lives of a variety of characters and deftly incorporates several points of view—from that of Harriet's sweetly oblivious friend Hely to the malignant old matriarch of the Ratliff clan. When asked if she sympathizes with some of her creations more than others, Tartt replies, "No: It's part of the writer's job to understand all his or her characters, even characters who may be unsettling or unlikable to the reader."

Despite its young protagonist and the harrowing trials and revelations she endures, The Little Friend is not a story of innocence lost because Tartt recognizes—or remembers—that a child need not be an innocent. Indeed, Tartt's unflinching narrative portrays childhood as a time of exceptional knowingness, filled with terrors and wonders and fierce certainties that we see only dimly when we grow older.

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