We have a too easy capacity for convincing ourselves of anything – for conceiving, nursing, coddling – an obsession, of holding onto one thing (that might not even be true) out of desperation, and Donna Tartt renders this perfectly in The Little Friend.
A certain psychopathology colors her novel, percolates, and forces through the kudzu vines as the decisive factor in the novel’s very density. There’s always that shadow of the 9-year-old Robin hanging from the Tupelo tree. Back and forth, back and forth, a small body rocked from light to dark.
That The Little Friend starts with a lynching (and that’s what it is; that the Cleves are white doesn’t change the fact), is not only useful to her story as hook and basis but also perfect prologue to its themes. The Little Friend is a Southern novel, a Mississippi novel of race and class, hired help and white trash.
Harriet Cleve Dufresnes was only a few months old when her brother was found hanging from the tree. Not that anyone older – mother, father, aunts, maid – saw anything anyway. It happened and we can’t say why it happened or by whom, but we do feel its tremors, both in how the Cleve family has since found it hard to function and in how Harriet, once learning of it, is beset with solving the mystery.
And now she’s got a suspect, brought to her on the winds of Alexandria’s gossip. A slandering maybe sheds its skin; the suspect becomes, in Harriet’s mind, the perpetrator never convicted and vengeance is past due.
The action in Tartt’s novel is like a circus performance, act by act and outlandish. Where do rattlesnakes and shooting up halfwits and hard-hearted vengeance fit in among bicycles and ice cream cones and country club pools? Early in the novel, this jangled mess of ordinary childhood and the faux dangers of performance coil together in delirium as Harriet practices Houdini:
A glass hammer pounded, with crystalline pings, at the base of her skull. Her thoughts spooled up and unwound in complex ormolu tracery which floated in delicate patterns around her head.
One minute and sixteen seconds, but Houdini could hold it longer. Holding her breath and playing the dead man at the pool provide a never-ending fascination for Harriet, a girl who lives inside her thoughts.
Harriet is a methodical, cool-headed child, both naive and cautious, judicious and vengeful. You want to be on her good side because she’s innocently dangerous, just the type to drop a rattlesnake off an overpass in calculated cruelty.
But even as she’s clever she’s ruled by the myopia of her 12 years. She thinks things through from start to halfway and then is unable to see the natural progression: that actions come with consequences and consequences that, being in the here and now and not in a story book, are lasting. It’s as if make believe adventures poured out into the real world and now, in words more twisted, she’s got just enough rope to hang herself.
This sharpness of mind, coupled with a near disregard for the dangerous and an appreciation of the morbid, glazes her with a china doll creepiness, an effect heightened by the speed-induced paranoia of her Number One Suspect, Danny Ratcliff, who swears he sees her at every turn, two steady, watchful eyes that peak out from beneath that dark bowl haircut.
The Ratcliffs: Danny, his brothers Farish and Eugene and their grandmother, “Gum,” a claw-fingered woman who, obscenely, has managed to survive a host of illnesses that normally would do a person in for good.
For them, too, there’s obsession: drugs. And just as Harriet views the Ratcliffs as the perpetrators in the cause of her obsession, Danny and his brothers see Harriet through the microscope lens of Farish’s meth lab, a phantom arousing only suspicion and the fear of being caught – but never any thought of Robin.
Tartt carries her exposition through the length of her novel, adding and removing and rearranging things. Who is this little friend? We’re surprised to read it and a little saddened to read who reveals it. Because apart from the sundry terrors we feel alongside Harriet and apart from the ruined lives the whole adventure costs…we could have had the answer all along had we only asked, had we not held such a sour-smelling grudge, had we let someone in and had a little forgiveness or, indeed, mercy: vengeance is snake oil when its roots are lies.
There’s another story hidden in that fractured family of Harriet’s, that which she shares with her sister, Allison, a floaty girl, pretty and caring and a little dim; her absent father who lives one state north in Tennessee (and all the gossip says there’s a mistress); her mother, alive but with the vacancy of depression; Edie, her stronghanded grandmother; and a trio of great aunts.
And then there’s Ida Rhew, Ida, whom Harriet adores and who is more present as a mother than as a housekeeper; Ida, who lives on colored wages and is doubly jilted after time stopped in the Cleve house 12 years ago.
Tartt retrieves her characters from the preternatural in time to give them humanity. She lets their hearts beat out a rhythm so as to balance their one-track minds and let summer steal in between the shades.
With a family in as much disrepair as its old Southern manor (aptly named Tribulation and with a story – Absalom! Absalom! – that leaves a glimpse of Faulkner pacing the pages), it’s fitting then that Harriet’s heroes are the lonely and intrepid: Houdini; Mowgli, Kipling’s abandoned boy of the jungles; Captain Scott, perishing in the Antarctic freeze, his fellow explorers already dead and his own cramped fingers struggling to curl around the quill and scratch out a last message.
Her own sidekick though is Hely, a boy two years older who acts two years younger. He hasn’t a worry, not beyond band practice and trying to impress Harriet. For him it’s Boston cream pie for breakfast, a doting set of parents and an older brother who’s still very much alive. Hely is a lifeline back to the everyday carefree and the knotted rope back to the surface and into the daylight.
Because the action in Tartt’s novel, as mature and strange as it is, reads so much like it’s happening submerged, bleary and mumbled and fogged, like the feeling of being underwater, everything once sharp now dulled, a feeling of living inside one’s head even if your actions are very much real.
And that’s what obsession is. There isn’t any thought outside of that one thing gnawing its way through the maze of gray matter in your head. For Harriet, it’s her long-dead brother and the mystery of who killed him and why – and everything for her gets smeared with the mire of reconstructed memory.
The Little Friend · Donna Tartt
Vintage, 2002 · 624 pages, paperback