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The Little Friend

by Donna Tartt

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
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  • Published in USA  Oct 2002
    576 pages
    Genre: Novels

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Power Reviewer Cloggie Downunder

a brilliant read
“It was the last picture they had of him. Out of focus. Flat expanse of green cut at a slight diagonal, with a white rail and the heaving gloss of a gardenia bush sharp in the foreground at the edge of the porch. Murky, storm-damp sky, shifting liquescence of indigo and slate, boiling clouds rayed with spokes of light. In the corner of the frame a blurred shadow of Robin, his back to the viewer, ran out across the hazy lawn to meet his death, which stood waiting for him – almost visible – in the dark place beneath the tupelo tree”

The Little Friend is the second novel by American author, Donna Tartt. Harriet Cleve Dufresnes is twelve. Her best friend, (Duncan) Hely Hull is eleven. It is the summer of 1976, Alexandria, Mississippi, and they have managed to avoid being sent to camp. Having exhausted their usual activities, Harriet becomes interested in the murder of her brother Robin, who at age nine was found hanging from the black tupelo tree on Mother’s Day, twelve years earlier. It’s something nobody talks about.

Tartt expertly captures feel of a never-ending Mississippi summer during vacation time. Her portrayal of twelve-year old Harriet beautifully illustrates the naivete and the single-minded self-absorption of youth which, coupled with the allure of a taboo topic, facilitates a fixation borne of an absolute conviction based on hearsay. Tartt brings together in one tale the genteel class who still have black servants and the residents of the seedier side of town, the poor “White Trash”. The poverty mindset is well depicted, as is that of the more fortunate classes:

“She possessed, to a singular and uncomfortable degree, the narrowness of vision which enabled all the Cleves to forget what they didn’t want to remember, and to exaggerate or otherwise alter what they couldn’t forget; and in restringing the skeleton of the extinct monstrosity which had been her family’s fortune, she was unaware that some of the bones had been tampered with; that others belonged to different animals entirely; that a great many of the more massive and spectacular bones were not bones at all, but plaster-of-paris forgeries”

At over five hundred pages, this is no fast-paced murder mystery, but rather, a slow burn Southern drama, in which the tension builds to an exciting climax. This novel is filled with some deliciously black humour and a good dose of irony as characters navigate their war through meth labs and drug-fuelled paranoia, snakes and preachers, summer camp and funeral parlours, trailers and decaying elegance, grief and guilt.

Tartt treats the reader to some marvellous descriptive prose: “The view had captivated her: washing fluttering on lines, peaked roofs like a field of origami arks, roofs red and green and black and silver, roofs of shingle and copper and tar and tin, spread out below them in the airy, dreamy distance. It was like seeing into another country. The vista had a whimsical, toy quality which reminded her of pictures she’d seen of the Orient - of China, of Japan” and “This isn’t real, he told himself, not real, no it’s just a dream, and indeed, for many years to come – well into adulthood – his dreams would drop him back sharply into this malodorous dark, among the hissing treasure-chests of nightmare” are examples. A brilliant read.
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