After all, Tartt has held an eager audience of readers at bay for slightly more than a decade since publishing her remarkable, bestselling debut novel, “The Secret History.“ The literary world has been clamoring for her sophomore effort ever since, but Tartt opted to crank out thoughtful and provocative columns, critiques, and essays, while quietly working on “The Little Friend.“
At long last, it is here, and absolutely worth the wait. Part of the deliciousness of the anticipation of this new book was in the speculation of whether or not Tartt was really as fine a storyteller and insightful a moralist as she appeared to be with “The Secret History.“ The answer is a resounding yes, and then some.
Much like her other book, “The Little Friend“ deals with the themes of crime and punishment, prejudice and class distinction, ambition and longing, vulnerability and innocence lost, revenge, and the sometimes fragile nature of redemption. The action is set in the early 1970s in a small Mississippi town, a Faulkneresque landscape whose geographic wounds Tartt seems to know intimately. The central character is 12-year-old Harriet Cleve Dusfresnes, who is growing up in the shadow of her dead brother Robin, who, when she was just a baby, was found murdered and hanging from a tree in their yard.
The crime was never solved, and has torn apart Harriets family, especially her mother, who has taken to her bed with migraines in retreat from the world, and her father, who has abandoned his reclusive wife, Harriet and her sister Allison. Tartt slowly brings up the lights on her darkened stage as she prepares to unfold the drama by describing the devastation Robins death has caused, even more than a decade after it happened:
“For the rest of her life, Charlotte Cleve would blame herself for her sons death because she had decided to have the Mothers Day dinner at six in the evening instead of noon, after church, which is when the Cleves usually had it. Dissatisfaction had been expressed by the elder Cleves at the new arrangement; and while this mainly had to do with suspicion of innovation, on principle, Charlotte felt that she should have paid attention to the undercurrent of grumbling, that it had been a slight but ominous warning of what was to come; a warning which, though obscure even in hindsight, was perhaps as good as any we can ever hope to receive in this life. Though the Cleves loved to recount among themselves even the minor events of their family historyrepeating word for word, with stylized narrative and rhetorical interruptions, entire death-bed scenes, or marriage proposals that had occurred a hundred years before the events of this terrible Mothers Day were never discussed. They were not discussed even in covert groups of two, brought together by a long car trip or by insomnia in a late-night kitchen; and this was unusual, because these family discussions were how the Cleves made sense of the world. Even the cruelest and most random disastersthe death, by fire, of one of Charlottes infant cousins; the hunting accident in which Charlottes uncle had died while she was still in grammar schoolwere constantly rehearsed among them, her grandmothers gentle voice and her mothers stern one merging harmoniously with her grandfathers baritone and the babble of her aunts, and certain ornamental bits, improvised by daring soloists, eagerly seized upon and elaborated by the chorus, until finally, by group effort, they arrived together at a single song; a song which was then memorized, and sung by the entire company again and again, which slowly eroded memory and came to take the place of truth... But Robin: their dear little Robs. More than ten years later, his death remained an agony; there was no glossing any detail; its horror was not subject to repair or permutation by any of the narrative devices that the Cleves knew. Andsince this willful amnesia had kept Robins death from being translated into that sweet old family vernacular which smoothed even the bitterest mysteries into comfortable, comprehensible formthe memory of that days events had a chaotic, fragmented quality, bright mirror-shards of nightmare which flared at the smell of wisteria, the creaking of a clothes-line, a certain stormy cast of spring light.“
Tartts Harriet is a fascinating young creature - willful, precocious, intelligent, and given to wild flights of fantasy, much of it the result of raising herself with little adult attention, save that of Ida, the family maid, and several relatives on her mothers side. She believes that if Robin had lived, her life would be radically different, and becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of the murder, along with the help pf her friend Hely.
Based more on conjecture than evidence, Harriet goes so far as to identify Robins killer as her whitetrash, drug addicted neighbor, Danny Ratliff, who hails from a long line of degenerates and delinquents. At first, theres a comedic element to Harriets stalking of Danny, but as it becomes more relentless, the tables turn, placing her in the path of danger, if not true evil. What at first seems like childs play becomes increasingly more serious, then menacing, as Harriet replaces cleverness with calculated cunning. Tartt knows just when to fan the flames to elevate the suspense. And in the end, after a tense climax that builds with deliberate pacing, all is not neatly tied up and resolved, but messy, like real life itself.
Tartts intelligence, morally challenging ideas, and compelling, often elegant turns of phrase fairly leap from each page, and her characters are more finely detailed than they were in her first outing. “The Little Friend“ is proof positive that Tartts gifts as a writer are many, and even if another 10 years pass before her next novel, readers can expect then - as now - to be rewarded for their patience.