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Little girl is at the center of a dark Southern tale - Review of The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

Little girl is at the center of a dark Southern tale - Philadelphia Inquirer, November 17, 2002 by Helen Mitsios
The Little Friend is a big book about a friendless little girl. Donna Tartt's long-awaited second novel is centered on 12-year-old Harriet, who takes it upon herself to find her brother's murderer and avenge his death. The subject of murder is reminiscent of Tartt's highly celebrated first novel, The Secret History, published 10 years ago, which revolves around a clique of classics students at a liberal arts campus in Vermont.

Like its predecessor, The Little Friend is a dark book - only darker. It's infused with a marvelously laborious and Proustian sense of time past. It hits its stride when the main conflict jells - little Harriet brimming with biblical revenge and pitted against Danny Ratliff, the tough ex-con from the wrong side of the tracks, who comes with a pack of badder brothers in tow. Until then, the pace is slow and languorous, embracing the feel of the deep South, where tupelo trees, kudzu, and all sorts of creepy-crawly foliage claustrophobically encroach onto the present.

Harriet spends hours looking at old photos of her brother, Robin, glimpsing a time when her household still had some semblance of normalcy. "The washes were too blue, unearthly; and the colors had become even stranger and more tremulous with age. The dream-lit world they provided her a glimpse of was magical, self-contained, irretrievable."

Tartt, who grew up in Mississippi, sets the tale in the '70s in an imaginary small town: Alexandria, Miss., a tattered time-warped pocket of the deep South, where a once-glorious past vies with an anemic and underachieving present. "Memory - fragile, hazy-bright, miraculous - was to them the spark of life itself, and nearly every sentence of theirs began with some appeal to it."

Harriet lives under the bureaucratic rule of an extended matriarchy of grandmother and aunts. Her mother, Charlotte, wanders around the house like the somnambulant offspring of Blanche DuBois, trapped in the memories of her son's death, skittishly tiptoeing in the twilight around her daughters and maid. Sixteen-year-old sister Allison is ethereal and dreamy, a spaced-out foil to the impatient and meticulously plotting Harriet. "Allison's somnolence - unlike her mother's - was natural and not narcotic." Both sisters are typical of Tartt's Southern women - either too sharp or too fragile for their own good, each in her own way scarily manipulative.

A lot in The Little Friend rides on whether the reader ultimately roots for the neglected and misunderstood bad seed Harriet. "Harriet was not disobedient, exactly, or unruly, but she was haughty, and somehow managed to irritate nearly every adult with whom she came in contact."

The Little Friend is about the magic of childhood - but it's the black magic. Harriet's aunt observes, "It's awful being a child, always at the mercy of other people." Harriet whiles away long solitary afternoons daydreaming and reading adventure stories - Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Treasure Island, Rudyard Kipling - trying to escape the confines of her narrow world. The closest she has to a friend is Hely, equal parts braggart and buffoon, tolerated as Sancho Panza to her Don Quixote.

Houdini becomes one of Harriet's major fascinations. She devotes her summer to practicing holding her breath as long as possible, trying to match Houdini's three-minute record, an effort that does not go unaccounted for later in the novel. Like Houdini, Harriet becomes an escape artist of her own life.

It would be a disservice to call The Little Friend a thriller. It's an old-fashioned, highly crafted novel with a slow crescendo and a razzle-dazzle denouement. Tartt says "there are no real messages in my fiction," but we can't help but be reminded, along with Harriet, that in the end the only friend one has to be true to is oneself.

Helen Mitsios is the editor of "New Japanese Voices: The Best Contemporary Fiction From Japan."

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