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Harriet the Spy - Sven Birkerts reviews The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

Book Magazine, November/December 2002

Donna Tartt is a writer who seems to thrive on countering norms and expectations. She published her first novel in 1992, while the ink on her Bennington College diploma was still wet. The Secret History, a heated-up tale of murder and cultism at a very Bennington-like campus, was a publishing phenomenon, gaining an enormous popular success even as it posted respectable scores on the literary charts. Tartt earned instant Brat-pack status, and a whole generation of readers awaited the inevitable cash-in follow-up. Which then, confoundingly, did not and did not come.

Now, at last, a full decade later—and in an entertainment culture like ours, a decade is a lifetime—Tartt delivers The Little Friend, a vast, thickly woven and defyingly unchic work of immersed imagination. The novel is nothing anyone could have predicted.

Most contemporary novelists have forsworn accretions of atmosphere in favor of edgy sketches of the Cultural Now. Not Donna Tartt. Indeed, the first few hundred pages of The Little Friend are almost nothing but background and atmosphere. I mean nothing pejorative—not yet. The dense, steamy mood of a small-town Mississippi summer blends together beautifully with Tartt's extraordinarily patient evocation of the inwardness of twelve-year-old Harriet Cleve.

Gawky, rough-edged, stubborn, afloat in her bookishness and braced against the vast sorrows of family life, Harriet is the least likely of heroines. Yet page by page, as we take in the story of her family's tragedy—the unsolved hanging death of her older brother Robin when she was a very young girl—we grasp the extent of her resilience, that quality that generations ago was known as "pluck." Harriet is the family's one true survivor. Her father has absented himself altogether, working a job in another town; her mother lives in a medicated trance, barely stirring the air as she moves from room to room; and her teenage sister spends most of her time staring into the televisual beyond. There remains only a crew of eccentric aunts, presided over by the formidably peppery Edie, to supply the sustaining vibrations of familial domesticity.

Slowly, the novel gathers its momentum. Her spirit all but annihilated by the despairing inertia that surrounds her, but now feeling the first surges of adult independence, Harriet begins to dream a task, a meaning for herself. One day, impetuously, she inscribes "Goals for Summer" on a fresh page of her notebook. Writes Tartt: "Restlessly, she stared at this. Like the woodcutter's child at the beginning of a fairy tale, a mysterious longing had possessed her, a desire to travel far and do great things; and though she could not say exactly what it was she wanted to do, she knew that it was something grand and gloomy and extremely difficult."

Soon after, Harriet has her realization: Not only was her brother murdered, but she knows who did it. Fixing her suspicions on a former schoolmate of Robin's, one of a network of local ne'er-do-well brothers, she makes it her summer's mission to avenge Robin's death, and to that end enlists her friend Hely, a boy almost as far gone in adventuring fantasies as she is.

As much as I deplore the facile "X meets Y" blurb-generating machine, I will confess that as The Little Friend caught its narrative stride, as Harriet and Hely began poking their noses into the various sordid doings they had unearthed—hiding, spying, eavesdropping—I kept thinking (strike me dead!) "Nancy Drew meets Harper Lee." For from that point on, The Little Friend seems to change not just its narrative mode, but also its deepest fundamental thrust, moving from almost inert brooding to what feels like an atmosphere-freighted adventure story. Alternating sections now give glimpses of the sordid comings-and-goings of the suspect and his unsavory kin. Here we are in the world of the Southern grotesque, among characters we might have met in the works of Flannery O'Connor or the more venomous recent fiction of Barry Hannah. We catch the stench of evil, look into lives lived past all hope of redemption. As Harriet's bravado encroaches on the genuinely dangerous, confrontation becomes inevitable and then, with strong cinematic flourishes, happens. The question is whether the shift from mood-centered scenes to action-driven plot works.

To my mind, it doesn't, not completely. The transition is too dramatic, and the cops-and-robbers contrivances—the clichés of that genre of suspense narrative—overwhelm what had been a complex, if slow-moving exploration of the deep undercurrents of family life and the ongoing abrasions of trauma. Still, Tartt writes with confident mastery in both modes—she has matured considerably as a stylist since The Secret History—and this carefully layered portrait of a remarkable girl's chrysalis summer offers enough substance to gratify the most impatient of her fans. This may not be a novel that is passed from hand to hand with the "You've got to read this" injunction, but in terms of Tartt's reputation among more serious readers, that may be a good thing.


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