The Little Friend – Review

Gender Agenda
Gender Agenda

Issue 2 Michaelmas 2002

The magazine of


Women's Union

The Little Friend, Donna Tartt

Reviewed by Maria Whelan

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I am now locked up in a handcuff that has taken a British mechanic five
years to make. I do not know whether I am going to get out of it or not, but I can assure you
that I am going to do my best.”

This remark, made by Harry Houdini , prefaces Donna Tartt’s new novel. It is slightly out
of keeping with Tartt’s choices for her first, 1992’s The Secret History, which came from a
textbook about the ancient Greek mind, and from Plato. When The Secret History was first
published, it seemed to belong to an emergent genre of American novels, focussing with chilly
brilliance on the sins of the academic and social elite. Since then, Tartt has retained her
mystique and her reputation through her near-total lack of publication.

The Secret History became, for many of its readers, an adolescent rite of passage. To say,
therefore, that The Little Friend has been ‘eagerly awaited’ is something of an
understatement, and I wondered if the pressure of expectation had influenced Tartt in her
selection of the quotation. Perhaps she, too, feels shackled into a seemingly impossible
situation, expected to produce a miracle- ‘I do not know whether I am going to get out of it
or not, but I can assure you that I am going to do my best.’ Another of Houdini’s tricks,
imitated in the novel, was the ability to deprive himself of air for minutes at a time. Sadly,
having read an advance copy of The Little Friend, my advice to those hoping for another Secret
History is ‘Don’t hold your breath.’

Tartt has been keen to emphasise the distance between this novel and The Secret History,
but once again, one hears the handcuffs snapping shut. If this novel resembles the first, she
will be accused of being a one-trick pony; if it does not, she risks disappointing her devoted
(and patient) fans. In a rather ambiguous compromise, The Little Friend is at its strongest
when it most resembles The Secret History.

The similarities between the two novels are thematic; the differences in structure and
setting. Set in wintery Vermont, The Secret History was characterised by austerely beautiful
prose. The Little Friend is set in Tartt’s native Mississippi, and one sometimes feels that
both author and reader are in danger of falling asleep in the heat. For the second quarter of
its length, the novel has almost no narrative momentum at all. It could be counter-argued that
narrative momentum is not, at this point, Tartt’s aim, but, nonetheless, the impression
remains that Tartt, like her heroine Harriet, has drifted into a quiet trance of her own.
Harriet’s role provides the similarities with the earlier work. We have a death, a sense of
threat, and characters eaten away by guilt. The most striking difference is, while The Secret
History was populated by students, The Little Friend centres on children. Their dominance of
the novel gives it its defining sense of dislocation. The novel is dominated by
absences; Harriet’s brother, who died mysteriously when she was a baby; her mother, who makes
a shattered retreat into depression, and her father, who moves away from the family
home. Harriet’s engagement with the outside world is marked by a similar sense of
dislocation. Her inner life is, in some senses, very adult – her self-control and
resourcefulness mark her out from her peers – yet her application of these talents to the
outside world is very child-like – fantastic and capricious. It is this disparity between the
child’s conception of the world and her interaction with it which give passages in this novel
a dream-like power. It also means that the driving force of the plot, Harriet’s belief that a
local family, the Ratcliffs, are responsible for her brother’s death, is equally convoluted,
fitful, and strange.

Where Harriet’s point of view is shaped by her introspection and the ‘absences’ of mild
epilepsy, the Ratcliff brothers’ drug-altered perceptions mirror the pacing of the novel as it
speeds up, slows down, becomes fixated by the discovery of the strange in the everyday. This
provides some impressive moments, as in the description of the Ratcliff’s grandmother, riddled
with illness like ‘a poisoned sponge’, or the hallucinatory image of a child in a Halloween
costume, transformed into a figure of nameless panic. However, the characterisation of the
Ratcliffs simply work less well than that of the children, their involvement with a southern
preacher being too much of a digression. The book would have benefited from an editor brave
enough to tell Tartt to do some cutting as, while The Little Friend is, in patches, as
absorbing as one would have hoped, it seems that, ironically for a novel which deals so much
with the passing of time, if Tartt had had less time to write it, it might have been still
better.

 


 

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