Southern Goth Rock
This winter has been a bonanza of highly anticipated follow-up efforts from high-profile authors. Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man, Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity, and, of course,The Little Friend by Donna Tartt.
Tartt’s, perhaps, was the release awaited with the most bated breath, after the runaway success of her first book, The Secret History, published nearly ten years ago. Rumors have swelled for years not only about her debut (and the much-batted-around idea of a film adaptation) but of her follow-up. And now that her second installment has been published, nearly as much hay has been made about her return as about the book itself.
Like The Secret History, The Little Friend opens with a murder, but instead of tracking how it came to be, Tartt’s book is more of a dark mystery. Set in muggy Mississippi instead of the classical East Coast, we begin with the cruel murder of almost ridiculously precocious Robin Dufresnes. In the opening, his family is a chatty, rambly affair, held together by four Southern matriarch aunts, but as the years pass by and Robin’s murder remains unsolved, the family falls into disrepair, with the aunts remaining as a sort of Southern Greek chorus. While the story is about Robin’s murder, the book mainly focuses on his sister Harriet, a 12-year-old so darkly tough, conniving and clever that it’s almost difficult to like her (and difficult not to wonder if her namesake was “Harriet the Spy”). Harriet emulates mysterious characters like the explorer Captain Scott and Harry Houdini as she tries to sort out the truths of her primary suspects in the murder of her brother, the Ratliffs, a family so rough that it makes Harper Lee’s Radleys look like the Brady Bunch.
The Little Friend is technically a much tighter, mature book than The Secret History. I’ve read her debut novel several times over the years since it was released, and each time I realized a little more and more that while it was a juicy, captivating story, it was also incredibly unrealistic in some ways, to the point where it became distracting. Her second book is more believable, with characters who expand beyond their snazzy clichés. Perhaps it’s simply the fact that The Secret History features wealth and flash versus The Little Friend‘s themes of poverty and decay, but while Tartt tended to let her stories and characters fly into the glorious ether in her first book, this effort has its feet much more firmly planted on the ground. By itself, this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s superior, but in comparison, if the two books were films, The Secret History would be more Cruel Intentions and The Little Friend would be Dancer in the Dark.
However, with that in mind, The Little Friend lacks some of the spark and juice that gave The Secret History its distinct re-readability. It’s certainly a captivating and well-written book, but maybe due to the inescapable despair and feeling of being trapped, it’s not as much of a romp. Tartt’s first book was about escape and fantasy and seeing how much one could get away with. Her second book, however, focuses on culpability and reality, to the point where it breaks off nearly shockingly at the end, whereas The Secret History wrapped up neatly with a handy epilogue. In some ways, the readers of The Secret History wished they could live in the book, whereas here, readers will want to get as far away as possible from the life depicted, with its humidity, rot, murder, mix of too-bright-lights and too-dark corners.
Despite their emotional differences, the two books share much in common, with The proving that Tartt does have a very particular style that will either become her trademark or that she’ll try to escape in her next book (in another ten years?) Both books glorify a kind of atheistic intellectual snobbery, making heroes of those so intelligent that they suffer from it, and vilifying the religious, the cheerful and even simply the sincere. At the same time, in both works, Tartt has a soft spot in her heart for criminals and villains, giving even the most desperate or cold-blooded killer a feeling of simply having been misunderstood, which is especially noticeable in Tartt’s aforementioned disdain for the innocent yet annoying. Both books also feature a glamorization and subsequent despairing portrait of speed, apparently Tartt’s literary drug of choice.
In both books, Tartt manufactures a sort of cult of womanhood. In The Little Friend, the male characters who are not the villains or their relatives are portrayed as fools or devils. From her East Coast novel to this gothic Southern tale, though, there is a certain mystery around femininity that involves china teacups, cigarettes, old-fashioned perfume and a glamorous Sunset Boulevard sort of decay, as she describes Allison (only sixteen): “Her voice was soft, her manner languid, her features blurred and dreamy.” Even Tartt’s writing style has carried over, with a sometimes flowery display of love for her settings (“The river was yellow: fat, sluggish, with the sheen of ochre oil paint squeezed from the tube”) and her frequent exclamations such as “How high above the ground she was!”
Most importantly, though, is the innate readability and character development that Tartt used so well in her first book present in The Little Friend. If Tartt was out to prove that she can write about topics not as fun as beautiful rich college students behaving badly, then she’s proven it. If she’s out to prove, though, that The Secret History was no fluke, well, that’s now a definite.
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