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Donna Tartt: The Little Friend

Of course, given that it had taken ten years to write and following the phenomenal success of The Secret History, it was always going to be compared unfavourably with its predecessor. So, yes, the short answer is that it is not as good as The Secret History but that is such a high standard that Tartt could not hope to replicate so the second short answer is yes, it is an excellent novel.

The main characters is Harriet Dufresne, who lives in a small Mississippi town. At the time of writing she is twelve. This means that she is bound to be compared with McCullers heroines such as Mick Kelly and Frankie Adams. And, indeed, it is very clear that Tartt has read her McCullers. Even the milieu is similar.

Harriet has an older sister – Allison – and lives with her mother, Charlotte, with assistance from Ida, the maid, and her grandmother (Charlotte’s mother), Edie, and Edie’s three sisters. The father – Dix – now lives in Nashville, visiting occasionally but more concerned with his job and his secretary. When Harriet was a baby and Allison four years old, their brother Robin – nine years old and loved by everyone – briefly disappears from a Mother’s Day celebration in the house and is found hanging from a tree soon after. Suicide and an accident seem unlikely but who killed him and why? No-one can find out. The incident haunts the entire family. Charlotte has a breakdown and is less and less able to care for her other two children. Allison seems detached from the world and obsessed only with the dying Weenie, Robin’s and now her cat. Harriet is an inveterate reader and an adventurous girl, often dragging along her hapless friend Hely. She reads about Robin, learns more about his death and determines to find his killer.

She very quickly identifies the killer. He is Robin’s former playmate, Danny Ratliff. Danny comes from a rough family, most of whom have been in prison. Two of his brothers are currently in prison, one was in prison and is now a preacher without a flock and the oldest one – Farish – is cruel and insane, since he shot himself in the head. Farish and Danny are in the crystal methamphetamine business, both as users and manufacturers/dealers. Danny is therefore an obvious candidate. Harriet is determined to exact revenge for her brother and the book relates her attempts to do so. In the meantime, Tartt paints a very rich picture of the life and history of both the Dufresne family and the Ratliffs and how they interact. Harriet is very smart and causes the Ratliffs a lot of problems, many of which are highly amusing. But the skill of this book as with her previous book is the portrait of both an entire closed world – the small Mississippi town and its inhabitants – and a thoroughly convincing and lively portrait of Harriet, even if she is Frankie Adamsish. It’s not as good as The Secret History but it is still a first-class book and makes us hope that the next one will not take ten years.

Publishing history

First published by Knopf in 2002