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Donna Tartt's The Little Friend: Soaringly, incredulously, gorgeously cruel

The Guardian, October 26, 2002

Donna Tartt's much-hyped second novel, The Little Friend, does not disappoint - but don't expect a follow-up to The Secret History.

by Natasha Walter
The appearance of Donna Tartt's second novel has been an event rather than just a publication. That happens from time to time, but the media rarely act in concert over a literary novel on quite such a scale. All these interviews and profiles, this concentration on the author's personality, her lifestyle, her sales figures and her deals, are threatening to suck the oxygen out of the critical debate. It is imperative to try to read The Little Friend for what it is, not for what it says about Donna Tartt or for how well it lives up to the hype.

Even if you could recapture a lost innocence, and open this novel with no expectations, you would be caught by the energy of its prose. Tartt starts this novel in a very similar way to The Secret History, with a matter-of-fact reference to a murder. "For the rest of her life," it begins, "Charlotte Cleve would blame herself for her son's death because she had decided to have the Mother's Day dinner at six in the evening rather than noon, after church, which is when the Cleves usually had it."

But this novel is not directly about a murder. It is about the effect that the murder has on the dead boy's family, and especially on his sister Harriet, who was less than a year old when he died, and is 12 when the novel begins. It is through Harriet's desire to come to terms with the past and find her brother's killer that Tartt paints her vision of family life in the American South. As Harriet trudges through one lonely summer, encountering misunderstanding, bereavement, solitude and straightforward cruelty, she drifts further and further into her obsessions. Eventually other, tougher, meaner characters are dragged into her warped world and she is almost destroyed by her attempts to exact pointless revenge on individuals who bear illogical grudges against her.

There are none of the aesthetic sweeteners of The Secret History here, none of its beautiful people and elegant plotting. In some ways it feels like a deliberate reaction to Tartt's first work. If The Secret History had one striking fault, it was the way the violence occurred so easily, even stylishly. There is a great deal of violence in The Little Friend, and it is executed in a very different style: bloody and unglamorised, with apparently endless repercussions of guilt and misery.

It is hard to give an example without giving away the plot, but the scene in which Harriet kills a bird is more shocking than the scene in The Secret History in which characters kill their own friend. "She slipped her hands underneath it, supporting its stuck wing as best as she could and - wincing against the wing beating violent in her face - lifted up. There was a hellish screech and Harriet, opening her eyes, saw that she'd ripped the stuck wing off the bird's shoulder. There it lay in the tar, grotesquely elongated, a bone glistening blue out the torn end." And so the scene continues for a few paragraphs, as the bird dies in her hands, its "eyes already dulled to a dumb incredulity".

You feel the physical reality of this scene as you read it. There is also no glossing, in this novel, over the emotional repercussions of violence. The whole book, the entire portrait of a troubled family and all its relationships, stems from the unsolved murder of one young boy.

Dysfunctional as this family is, it is also humanly convincing. Harriet herself is a true, spiky child, all odd angles and unexpected depths, and her brooding on the death of her brother seems all of a piece with her recalcitrant character. It is not only Harriet who is boldly drawn - her entire family pull away from and towards one another in a convincing portrayal of fractured domesticity.

Take, for instance, Harriet's mother, Charlotte, who rises from her tranquilliser-induced stupor to try to make friends with her children. There she sits, attempying conversation about bras and cheerleading with two disaffected daughters. "Her face was flushed, her eyes were bright, but beneath her cheer was a frantic and pitifully strained quality." In her recreation of southern society in the 1970s, Tartt also moves beyond the middle classes. Her treatment of the poor white families on the edge of town sometimes verges on caricature, but you will rarely have read better depictions of the relationships between white employers and their black servants.

Although her social ventriloquism can be effective, the difficulty that Tartt may have experienced in writing this large novel is echoed by the unevenness of its prose. At its best, her writing fuses seamlessly with its subject: heated when the events are heated, languorous when the moment slows, precise when she ferrets out the next turn of the plot. Yet at times she seems to be reaching for effects that she cannot control.

From the first pages of the novel, you are struck by her tendency to describe things in threes, in arching adjectival triplets. So when Charlotte Cleve mistakes a sound for her own son's bicycle, her heart "vaulted up for a soaring, incredulous, gorgeously cruel moment". Not long afterwards, as Harriet is examining family photographs, she sees her mother looking "airy, charming, sparkling with life", a china dinner service that is "heavenly, glorious, a complete set", and another photograph where the light is "fractured, sentimental, incandescent with disaster".

The hyperbole works as long as it is coupled to Tartt's precise descriptions or her accurate ear for dialogue. But even if she stumbles over details, the pace of this novel remains impressive. Tartt is able to make "reading time" slow down, so that you feel you are experiencing the events she describes in real time, or even more slowly than real time. This groggy, dreamlike pace is particularly effective at moments of high drama. One action scene, in which Harriet and her best friend are caught for a few hours between a set of poisonous snakes and two violent criminals high on drugs, takes up 24 pages of unflagging description, which will speed your pulse as if you were trapped along with the children.

Because of Tartt's mastery of suspense, this book will grip most readers all the way through to its bitter end. But as you reach the last page, you may well feel a sense of relief. Although this is a large novel, Tartt has created a claustrophobic world in which there is little possibility of freedom for any character. And although in a way this is Harriet's coming of age story, it has happened in a world so paranoid and so enclosed that you hardly believe she will ever be able to grow up.

Natasha Walter is the author of The New Feminism (Virago)

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