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Book 87: The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

Book 87: The Little Friend.
Author: Donna Tartt, 2002. Introduction by A. O. Scott, 2007.
Genre: Period Fiction. 1970s Mississippi. Literary. Coming of Age. Drugs. Racial Issues.
Other Details: Paperback. 592 pages.

Twelve-year-old Harriet is doing her best to grow up, which is not easy as her mother is permanently on medication, her father has silently moved to another city, and her serene sister rarely notices anything. All of them are still suffering from the shocking and mysterious death of her brother Robin twelve years earlier, and it seems to Harriet that the family may never recover. So, inspired by Captain Scott, Houdini, and Robert Louis Stevenson, she sets out with her only friend Hely to find Robin's murderer and punish him. But what starts out as a child's game soon becomes a dark and dangerous journey into the menacing underworld of a small Mississippi town. - synopsis from UK publisher's website.

This is a powerfully evocative novel about a young girl living in Mississippi in the late 1970s. Although Tartt does not mention any specific dates mentions of Star Wars and related action figures suggests 1978/79. Yet somehow Harriet and her family live out of time and so mentions of popular culture seem slightly intrusive.

Despite the Prologue in which we learn that "For the rest of her life, Charlotte Cleve would blame herself for her son's death because she had decided to have the Mother's Day dinner at six in the evening rather than noon, after church, which is when the Cleves usually had it" and the details of Robin's death, this is not a 'whodunit' but an examination of the effects that this death has upon the extended Cleve family and especially upon twelve-year old Harriet, who had only been a baby when her brother died.

Harriet is a precocious child, very interested in books and making her own way in life. Her desire to find and then punish the person she decides must have been responsible for Robin's death is not only irrational but as the synopsis above suggests brings Harriet into contact with a dangerous family, who among other things are involved in the production of 'crank', an impure form of methamphetamine. For those sensitive to such matters there is a fair amount of animal death in the novel and some of this was rather upsetting. I can read about the murders of people but when it is a bird, cat or dog dying I'm a wreck.

Aside from myself, the novel was not well received by members of the library group where it was the April selection. This was likely due to their expectation that it was a murder mystery rather than a tale about the Deep South and the loss of innocence as childhood yields to adolescence and adulthood. However, I had been pre-warned of this back when another group read Tartt's first novel, The Secret History, and someone who had read The Little Friend, compared it to works by William Faulkner and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

I enjoyed this very much though it is fair to observe it is not going to be everyone's cup of tea.
Tags: bildungsroman/coming of age, drugs, family saga, literary, period fiction (20th century), race
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