Southern Discomfort

A murky Mississippi murder mystery from the author of The Secret History.


by Donna Tartt

(Knopf, $26)

UW Campus, Kane Hall, room 120, 206-624-6600 for tickets (required) or more information, free 7 p.m. Fri., Nov. 22

AFTER NEARLY 10 years of Salinger-esque reclusion, acclaimed Secret History author Donna Tartt returns with her sprawling sophomore effort, the not-so-little The Little Friend: 556 pages of murder, mayhem, and swampy Southern imagery that must have required—on the part of the writer—patience, perseverance, and several flowcharts.

Much like her first novel—which has since been translated into 23 languages and sold millions worldwide—The Little Friend begins with an ugly death: in this case, that of a vivacious, sweet-natured 9-year-old named Robin Cleve Dufresnes, found hanging beneath a tree in his own Mississippi backyard one stormy Mother's Day evening. Twelve years later, his sister Harriet, only weeks old at the time of his death, sets out to solve the mystery of his murder.

Other than the most obvious comparison—to her junior-P.I. namesake Harriet the Spy—Tartt's protagonist shows few if any similarities to the well-known young girls of literature. As Tartt describes her:

Harriet, the baby, was neither pretty nor sweet. Harriet was smart. From the time she was old enough to talk, Harriet had been a slightly disturbing presence in the Cleve household. Fierce on the playground, rude to company, she argued with Edie and checked out library books about Genghis Kahn and gave her mother headaches. . . . Harriet was not disobedient, exactly, or unruly, but she was haughty, and somehow managed to irritate nearly every adult with whom she came in contact.

If anything, she is an amalgamation of Tom Sawyer (scrappy, enterprising, pesky) and Holden Caulfield (disenfranchised, emotionally shuttered) and, despite her tough shell, a patently miserable little girl. Her dusty, forlorn home is a ghost town through which her still-grieving mother and dreamy, absent-minded older sister drift like wraiths; her blustery father drops in from his second home in Nashville only for holidays, though no one seems to enjoy his stays, least of all him. Only stalwart housemaid Ida Rhew, along with Harriet's stern grandmother Edie and a network of maiden and widowed aunts, insure that she is fed, clothed, and sent off to school every day.

Her fierce demeanor and near total lack of girlishness earn her few female friends, but a number of neighborhood boys fall under the spell of Harriet's stern charisma, especially the happily ordinary Hely, who describes her thus: "There were plenty of girls at school prettier than Harriet, and nicer. But none of them were as smart, or as brave. . . . She could forge handwriting—teacher handwriting—and compose adult-sounding excuse notes like a pro; she could make bombs from vinegar and baking soda, mimic voices over the telephone. She loved to shoot fireworks—unlike a lot of girls, who wouldn't go near a string of firecrackers. She had got sent home in second grade for tricking a boy into eating a spoonful of cayenne pepper."

Faced with the prospect of a long, hot, sticky summer with little to do but avoid Bible camp, the pair decide to pursue Robin's killer together, making good use of Harriet's intrepid investigative skills and Hely's additional manpower. A somewhat arbitrary trail of clues leads them to the Ratliff brothers, a group of bizarre, menacing characters seemingly ripped straight from the reels of Deliverance: Farish and Danny, both long-time jailbirds and co-workers in a highly successful homegrown meth lab; a firebrand preacher named Eugene; and the mentally arrested Curtis—all ensconced in a trailer strewn with taxidermied roadkill and the makings of bathtub meth. Tartt spares no adjectives in her sketching of their dark, ugly, paranoid world, while simultaneously passing back and forth between Harriet's pursuit and the aunts' own genteel trials and quarrels. It's a credit to the author that she manages to weave them so seamlessly—even as certain sentences groan under the weight of their too- carefully wrought construction, her knack for intensely vivid imagery and sharp characterization keeps the novel afloat even as it rambles. Whereas The Secret History immersed itself in the rarified world of East Coast academia, Little Friend wallows unabashedly in its Southern Gothic milieu—murky, brackish swamps, gently draping moss, thick-cut molasses accents; it's a nearly nonstop Faulkner and Flannery cabaret, which readers may find alternately fascinating or exhausting, depending on their predilections.

As a murder mystery, Friend is ultimately a failure; those looking for a clean resolution will be sorely disappointed. But as a coming-of-age tale, an exploration of innocence lost and knowledge gained—and an intricately realized recording of time and place—the book is, with all its difficulties, an ultimately rewarding experience. It seems Tartt, for all her reticence, has more than one history to share.

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