October 2002

Mike Atherton


The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt has now entered the same cult realm of JD Salinger and Joseph Heller not by writing a novel but rather by 'not' writing one. It's been ten years since the publication of her first novel The Secret History - a campus-set tale of murder and the consequences of putting too much faith in intellectualism over morality. Over the years the book has become something of a legend, almost universally praised and published in twenty-three languages. Tartt's publishers are now heralding her second novel as a more than worthy successor and are attempting to whip up the kind of media frenzy they are used to when publishing a new Harry Potter adventure. Strictly limited advanced copies have been nigh on impossible to get hold of, leaving the large majority of the press out in the cold and free to level accusations that the publishers are afraid of bad word-of-mouth before the publication date.

Views on The Little Friend are obviously going to hinge on memories of The Secret History. Those that hated it (and there were some - Kirkus Reviews stated that it was "about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie") may find the same faults here. It's a long book, perhaps a little too long (my own copy ran to 546 pages but the one due for publication seems to be a slightly trimmer 480) and some of the characters are not quite as well constructed as others. Those that loved The Secret History may find that Tartt has changed the formula too much. The biggest departure being the loss of a first person narrative although I for one believe this to be one of the novel's strengths, especially later in the book as we move from junior detective's view to possible suspect's. A great portion of the public will of course love the book regardless, and to be honest there is an awful lot to enjoy here.

The plot is a deceptively simple one; a twelve year old girl sets out to solve the mystery of who killed her brother back when she was still a baby. Once a suspect is within her sights she sets out with only the help of her best friend to make him pay, and it is here that Tartt re-establishes herself, as her pre-teen antagonist has no intention of turning her findings over to the police. She wishes to find the murderer and then avenge her brother with a little old-time 'eye for an eye' vengeance.

The main character of Harriet is remarkably well achieved. Tartt has likened her novel to Treasure Island but for me Harriet is more akin to Tom Sawyer than Jim Hawkins. Her attempts at detection are very much grounded in an adult world of real danger but occasionally she jumps to very child-like conclusions leaving the reader in the uncomfortable position of worrying where she will take them next. There is never the safe assumption here that everything will simply work out in the end. We soon get the feeling that Harriet's vengeance has less and less to do with her dead brother and more and more to do with her attempts to reconcile herself with an increasingly frustrating world of adults.

When not embroiled in plans for retribution involving poisonous snakes and breaking and entering, Harriet is very much a regular 12-year-old. You begin to love Harriet and needless to say this increases the tension when she finds herself out of her depth. It is a commendation to the author that at times you wish the little girl could simply forget about her dead brother and concentrate on riding her bike or watching television with her best friend Hely.

Hely is head over heels in awe of Harriet. Occasionally he makes the perfect foil to her eagerness but all too often he is more than happy to help her pursue her brother's killer, never quite realising that this game has all-too-real consequences. Some will probably look on the beautifully rendered opening of the novel and then complain that what follows never really attains the same level, but for me the single best part of the book comes much later when Hely finds himself trapped with... Well I can't give too much away can I?

Overall, I think Tartt has produced a much more mature and well-rounded novel than her first, but then again it is hard to say that there is anything here that justifies a ten year break. If nothing else it is an interesting answer to the problem of writing the 'difficult second novel' but seeing as this was such a pleasure to read it would be a pity to think that we'd have to wait until 2012 for her next work.

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

US Publisher: Alfred A Knopf
ISBN: 0679439382 (Hardcover)
480 pages

UK Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 0747562113 (Hardcover)
480 pages