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Tartt Delivers A Decade On

by Keily Oakes, BBC News, Entertainment, November 5, 2002

Ten years is a long time to wait for a follow-up to such a brilliant book as The Secret History, which thanks to hype and word-of-mouth has become a modern classic.

The Little Friend begins 12 years after the mysterious death of a young boy, found hanging from a tree in his own back yard.

Robin's death shocked the town and left his mother half-mad from years spent on sedatives.

His young sister Harriet was just a baby at the time and knows nothing about her brother except for the rose-tinted snippets handed down by relatives.

But the feisty tomboy is determined to uncover the truth and wreak revenge on those who killed her brother - proof or no proof.

One of The Secret History's successes was the ability to immerse the reader into the ivory-towered daunting, yet believable, world of a New England university.

White trash

But the backwater Mississippi life of The Little Friend is harder to get to grips with in its 1970s setting - at times it feels like the 1870s.

In some instances it seems both the children and adults are living in the past, with an innocence that even the death of a child cannot infiltrate.

It is only with the introduction of the white trash families of the Ratcliffs and the Odums that it becomes apparent that all is not well in the God-fearing town and that poverty and crime do exist.

The narrator is omnipresent, shifting between Harriet, her loyal friend Hely, her aged aunts, the maids, and various other characters.
Donna Tartt denied writer's block was the reason she took 10 years to write her second book

And as the hardback edition runs to more than 550 pages - a touch too long - so many contributing voices create confusion.


Harriet is a complicated girl, at times cerebral beyond her years, other times as childish as her age suggests.

Although Harriet is a cunning and wilful girl, forging signatures on cheques and sick notes, you do want her to succeed in finding the truth without landing herself in trouble.

But this is no Famous Five tale and it is obvious all is not going to end well with sandwiches and ginger beer as the book rolls towards its denouement.

After a 10-year absence from the literary scene it was always going to be tricky to follow up such a critically acclaimed debut novel.

Although not on a par with the exalted Secret History, Tartt has come though with a page-turning murder mystery that is both a gripping and thought-provoking read about a family desperate to bury itself in the past, and one girl's quest to move on.

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