I first found Donna Tartt’s writing through her 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch. I was completely blown away by her storytelling and character building that I went out and purchased her other two novels The Little Friend and The Secret History. I have not been let down by her writing and feel myself saving The Secret History because I don’t want to run out of her stories.
55 year old Tartt, grew up in Mississippi and her personal insights of the region shine through in her work The Little Friend which is set in Alexandria, Mississippi. On the surface of it, one could believe that the premise of The Little Friend is solving the murder of Robin Cleve Dufresnes, but in reality it is the aftermath of Robin’s death that shapes the novel and life of his youngest surviving sister, Harriet. Many readers who thought this novel was a crime fiction/thriller were disappointed and you can see this in the polarised way the novel is reviewed and talked about on Goodreads. However, if you approach this novel as a close-up look at family dynamics shaped by extreme tragedy and grief on the backdrop of a dying Southern way of life, the novel is extremely powerful.
Harriet, who for me in the main character of Tartt’s novel, also has her own coming-of-age moments through the novel. She sets out on a journey to figure out who murdered her older brother, Robin. Her motivations for this are mixed with wanting to know the truth, but I believe to also help her family heal from Robin’s death. Since her brother died, Harriet’s mother has lost herself in hoarding, prescription medication, and endless grief. She neglects her living children and almost lives in an in between fantasy world where she is both present and absent. Harriet’s grandmother, Edie, and her great aunties are the only role models Harriet can rely on. However, they also refuse to see the state of disarray that Harriet lives in with her mother and sister. In fact, it isn’t until the end of the novel that Edie enters Harriet’s home and realises the full extent of her daughter’s, Charlotte’s, hoarding and mental health problems.
The title of Tartt’s novel takes on multiple meanings throughout the novel. At first, I thought the title referred to Harriet’s friend Hely, who helps Harriet throughout her adventures in trying to find her brother’s killer. Later on in the novel, I wondered if the little friend was the snake they stole from the Ratliffs, which Harriet intends to use to poison the murderer when she finds him. And then, at the very end of the novel I wondered if the little friend referred to Danny Ratliff, who was friends with Robin at the time of his death. Danny wanted to play with Robin the day he was murdered, but the maid of the house, Ida, shews him away. It is hinted at the end of the novel that Robin could still be alive if Danny would have been with him.
If you expect answers at the end of the novel, then you are going to feel let down. Arguably, Tartt is not the type of author who will give you want you want in a story. There are no lose strings tied up at the end, if anything you are left with more questions and frustrations that when you started. Tartt will give you some cold hard truths that you will struggle to swallow. Her storytelling centres on stories from below about regular imperfect people just trying to get by. It is, for me, my favourite quality in her writing.
I cannot sing the praises of Tartt’s work enough. I truly love her style and her novels keep me thinking about them long after I have finished reading them. Her novels are never quick reads for me and I enjoy taking my time contemplating the story as it unfolds. I hope to see more novels from Tartt in the future as she is truly an American treasure. I would argue that her writing puts her up there with some of the amazing storytellers of our time. I also feel like her work does not get as much credit as it deserves.
Have you read any of Donna Tartt’s works? Who do you think is an amazing storyteller? As always, share the reading love.