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by Donna Tartt
Vintage, 2002
Review by Duncan Richter, Ph.D. on Jan 3rd 2003

The Little Friend

The first thing to say about this novel is that it is a wonderful book.  The second is that it is not perfect. 

There seems to be an unwritten rule that all stories set in the South be peopled exclusively by oddballs, making southern literature a subsection of the fantasy genre.  The Little Friend is no exception to this rule.  Predictably there is racist violence, genteel poverty, and snake-handling evangelism.  Everyone in this world is colorful or eccentric, although there is an implication that other people, off stage, are more normal.  Those we get to know fall into three categories: white, kooky, well meaning, middle class people; loveable, downtrodden, desperately poor, black people; dangerous, bigoted, poor, white people. 

On the face of it this is all quite unpromising.  But not all fantasy is bad (think Borges or the exaggerated realism of Martin Amis).  This is a kind of southern gothic Dickensian fantasy mystery story that is so well written that we can easily overlook the occasional sloppy grammatical mistake and self-indulgent showing off (when one character imitates a bird, for instance, we are told not only just how this bird sounds, but also how a whole list of other birds that the character does not imitate sound too).  These minor flaws matter because Tartt is not an author one reads only for the plot, which is largely the stuff of (very good) children’s adventure stories.  Her poetic evocation of a world filled with adrenalin, danger, and psychological corruption risks failure every time the language jars.  This happens rarely though and the rest of the time it is almost breath-taking how she manages to keep the trolley on the roller-coaster track, going up into dream visions of Houdini under water and Scott at the Antarctic, through evocative descriptions of the everyday world, and down into the physically and mentally mangled world of evil collided with by the heroine Harriet Cleve. 

Tartt’s story works not just because of the richness of her descriptions but because she creates a host of characters we care about.  It begins with the mysterious death of a boy and grows as, years later, his bookish, feisty, intense, imaginative, slightly nasty sister (who is still a child) decides to investigate and avenge his murder.  We are told of her meannesses at the beginning, but throughout most of the rest of the story she is well intentioned (if a little misguided about the ethics of revenge).  She is basically good, in contrast to the murderers, thieves, drug-dealers, racists and bullies she gets mixed up with.  Just as all the good characters are at least quirky, often harmfully, so the bad characters are not purely evil.  Their actions are made understandable because of poverty, bad upbringing, coercion, unorthodox religion, drug abuse, and brain damage.  Some are almost likeable.  Those that are not can still be relished for their gruesome awfulness. 

Despite its traditional flavor there is no clear moral to the story.  Its world is violent and unpredictable, but most of its inhabitants survive.  Its characters are largely trapped in the confines of roles determined by family, history, and biology, but escape is evidently possible, if only for Houdinis.  It is possible to make discoveries, but some mystery always remains.  The strangeness of this world, the wonderful and terrible possibilities (mostly the latter) it consists of, is more evident than the strangeness of the real world, but perhaps no more extreme.  It is no clearer what to make of The Little Friend than it is what to make of life itself.  If the novel has a point other than to entertain, perhaps it is this: it is bad to be mad, and difficult ever to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  

 

© 2002 Duncan Richter

Duncan Richter is an Associate Professor at the Virginia Military Institute in the Department of Psychology and Philosophy.  He is the author of Ethics After Anscombe: Post "Modern Moral Philosophy”  (Kluwer, 2000) and several papers on ethics and Wittgenstein.