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Light in a Gothic Darkness - Jane Shilling reviews The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

The Daily Telegraph, October 27, 2002

Ten years ago, at the age of 28, the American writer Donna Tartt published a rich and enthralling first novel called The Secret History. It was an overwhelming success, with the rare, mysterious quality that makes the readers of such novels brood over them, force their friends to read them, modify their behavior as a result of them. This sort of thing begins, you imagine, by being extremely gratifying for the author, but may well turn out to be something of a curse eventually. At first, everyone expects you to do the trick again, and if you don't, the wiseacres consign you to the great scrapheap of one-trick authors, whose reserves of creativity were exhausted by a single, prodigious literary effort. All this and more has been said of Donna Tartt. But now the long gestation is over: The Secret History has a sibling, The Little Friend.

If an author can be said to specialize on the basis of two books, then Donna Tartt's specialty is a kind of psychic suffocation. Her narratives unfold in ominous chiaroscuro, the curtains seem always drawn in her interiors; outside a perpetual thunderstorm rages, metaphorically, if not in fact. The temptation to file Tartt under Southern Gothic would be irresistible, if the languorous darkness of her writing were not streaked with a fierce, sour lucidity.

For such a long book, The Little Friend has a remarkably straightforward plot. A nine-year-old child, Robin Cleve, is found hanged in his family's garden. His murderer is never found. Twelve years later his sister, Harriet, who was six months old when he died, determines to take revenge on the man whom she believes killed him. He is Danny Ratliff, a former classmate of Robin, now a strung-out drifter from a family of tragi-comic white trash. Harriet's deductive processes are flawed, but her determination is inexorable. In the end the task she has set herself takes on its own momentum, with Harriet as instrument, rather than instigator.

Plot, however, is not really what interests Tartt. There is something almost mechanical in the way she sets up the story with the death of the child, which is never thereafter given the emotional weight that one might expect. The brilliance of The Little Friend resides in Tartt's ability to observe with the skewed clarity of a child - or a drug addict. There is a sense of struggle in the opening chapter, as though the author had found it difficult to begin. But this changes into prose in which pathos, horror and comedy are woven into a texture of paradoxically mingled lightness and weight, like one of those exotic shawls that can pass through a wedding ring.

Though her prose is finely wrought, it is also highly readable. Once gripped, one gallops through this novel as through a volume of Dickens or Tolstoy, drawn towards the great final set-piece as though by a magnet. This is an old-fashioned sort of story-telling - unironic, without self-reference, the author concealed by her narrative as though by a cloak of invisibility. In a literary climate in which the forecast is always for a cool front of irony, such writing seems both exotic and delicious.

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