‘The Little Friend’ by Donna Tartt

A quick review here, as I’ve just completed the book which is, certainly, the most useful book for passing time whilst sat on the loo. I swear that that is a compliment – some books just don’t cut it, but this weighty tome has been readable and entertaining. The atmosphere is pervasive, trickling with hot Southern State menace as 12 year old Harriet tries to uncover the truth behind the murder of her little brother several years ago. Her sister sleeps all day, her aunts barely listen to her, and her best and only real friend is a boy called Hely. She draws him into her plans and things soon turn lethal.
Harriet is a self-involved, imaginative and believably stubborn twelve year old girl, teetering on the cusp of that world-altering change known as puberty. While she resists this and drifts ever deeper into her own fantasy life, she decides that a n’er do well, part of a clan of worse and even crazier ne’er do wells, was behind the murder of her little brother and sets out to get revenge. The book dips in and out of different characters heads – although thankfully not in the same section break. While this gave a brilliant overview of the small town mentality that Harriet is swamped by, and the unpleasant family life of the man she decided is guilty, it also distracts from being with Harriet all the way through. Her perspective is increasingly deluded and this is diluted by the bobbing between brains that happens here. Without the extra thoughts it’s likely that the book would be considerably shorter, with the bonus of an unreliable narrator in the style of Catcher in the Rye.
The inner worlds of the other characters are brilliantly drawn, however, and add a sympathy for everyone’s private hell and I still found it a deeply involving book. But it’s odd that it doesn’t actually go anywhere. I’d have appreciated a pulpier ending, just for a real sense that something is wrapped up. Maybe I just don’t get ‘literature’, because no sci-fi plot would be caught pulped hanging like this. Criminally (er…) we are left without any resolution for the tragic murder at the start, and that it was actually a maguffin all along, driving the plot but being completely pointless at the last hurdle. We never learn who did it – then again, this isn’t the Hardy Boys! There still some important murders along the way, and these are well drawn and lead to a hugely tense scene. Also, I have to wonder if the Ratcliffe family are indestructible, given what they go through, too. Perhaps all of this was just a dream belonging to her sister, the ever-sleepy Allison, or the dying thoughts of their adorably named cat, Weenie. It’s a shame because it’s a great ride getting there. Perhaps we’re supposed to learn that resolution isn’t part of real life. This is a good slice of Southern Gothic, with snakes, red-necks and the white-heat of a long dreary summer. If you expect anything to be properly tied up, please keep clear.
Despite lacking a full conclusion, there’s still a lot to like. The Little Friend was an enthralling and atmospheric read and I will soon be checking out Donna Tartt’s first book, as it tends to garner stronger reviews than this has.

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