Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Little Friend

"One Mississippi summer in the 1970s, twelve-year-old Harriet Dufresnes, the youngest daughter of a once-wealthy white family, sets out to solve the mystery of her brother's murder. Twelve years earlier, young Robin was found hanging from a tupelo tree during a Mother's Day luncheon. Harriet's mother, sister and absent father won't talk about it, and her grandmother and three great aunts can't - or won't - help either. But with an imagination fuelled by "The Jungle Book", Harry Houdini, Lawrence of Arabia and Captain Scott, Harriet sets out to solve the case on her own, with occasional help from her neighbour, Hely, a ten-year-old boy obsessed with James Bond." Steven Reynolds c/o amazon.com

I just finished reading 'The little friend' by Donna Tartt (pictured). I had this book on the shelf for ages, and the truth is, I was scared to read it. No one likes to read about the death of a child, especially a small child that is found hanging in his own garden. But my friend Cath read it before me, and assured me that although the book was maudlin to begin with, it was worth sticking out as it was beautifully written.

And she was right. I have a inexplicable attraction to the work of writers from America's South, and this book captures that landscape and people in a hauntingly surreal way. The last time I had this impression was when I read Other voices, Other rooms by Truman Capote. I'm also a huge fan of Tartt's first book, 'The Secret History,' which I've read I don't know how many times. It is my all-time favourite holiday read.

The characterisation in The Little Friend is brilliant, and Tartt uses the English language as though she were painting with words - many intricate and complex layers. I don't think I have ever read an author who can capture the essence of a person or moment so precisely, yet with such a delicate touch.

The book is also a very good, not to mention sad portrait of the lonely lives of children that are neglected by parents suffering from grief and depression. Or who, for whatever reason, are too wrapped up in their own problems to provide the care, attention, and love that children need and thrive on.

My only criticism was the ending, which I thought was inconclusive. I actually felt cheated, because Tartt left me hanging, and not in a way that made me smile at her cheekiness. It didn't feel clever or intentional, it just kind of felt as though she got up from writing to go and make a cup of tea, and never returned. What happened to Danny Ratliff - did he come looking for Harriet? And most importantly, who killed Robin?

If you are after a satisfying end to something which is a cross between a (brilliant) characterisation novel and a 'who dun it?' avoid. If however you enjoy writing and more so, want to see just what is possible in terms of the art of description, I highly recommend it. This is a captivating, beautifully written book.

More reviews here and here.

Photo of Donna Tartt c/o allen-unwin.com

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