The Little Friend. Donna Tartt, 2002

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Here we are at the second stage of our reading of Donna Tartt’s novels. After having immensely loved The Secret History we started the reading of her second work, The Little Friend with great enthusiasm and high expectations. The book written ten years after the first one, is an intensive reading not only for the unusual length but also for its peculiar style. Right from the beginning we are dragged into a controlled and meticulous prose, where nothing is left to chance and everything acquires an extraordinary narrative weight, at times even hard to sustain.

The Bible Belt

We are in the imaginary town of Alexandria, in Mississippi, at the end of the 1960s. Donna Tartt – born right in Mississippi, in Greenwood, in 1963 and raised in the near city of Grenada – describes the atmosphere of these places with the precision of a native-born. These are peculiar places. They constitute the informal region located in the South-East of the United States of America, named Bible Belt. There, a conservative and evangelic Protestantism plays a major role in society and politics. This aspect, though, does not say all about this particular cultural area. It is a little but complex universe with a story made of encounters and clashes of different cultures. It has an ambiguous charm, due to the contrast between austere sets of values, giving it a conservative and placid appearance, and an extremely vital, rhythmic, instinctual soul that yet stays blurry, cryptic and mysterious.

A marshy atmosphere

In The Little Friend, Donna Tartt brings us right to the heart of the Bible Belt with an elegant and highly descriptive style providing a very plausible image of those places. The country heat waves and the preachers’ sermons are vividly pictured along with the representation of the sounds of nature and its wild proliferation along the banks of the muddy and dark rivers. It seems like being completely absorbed by a stale and musty atmosphere that covers everything up.

The accuracy through which Donna Tartt creates her setting is replicated to describe precisely the portrait of the family at the centre of the story and of our main character, the young Harriet Dufresnes who, though being part of it, will behave in an unexpected and opposite way. Hers is a typically southern and matriarchal family, conservative and old-fashioned. Its members live their existence without being fully aware of the stillness of its own values, at least until they are called to face the horror.

The horror

The horror arrives with a terrible event that upsets deeply the whole family. It has irreversible repercussions over all its members. In this sense, this fatal circumstance functions as an engine for a story that, though being very branched out, seems to have at its centre a paralysis. At a first level this tragedy brings to light the contradictions of a highly unbalanced system, where the social equilibrium lies on formal values hardly shared by the whole community.

At a second level this horrible event is used by Tartt to show the difficulty for a family to accept the death of one of its members. The impossibility to find the culprit exacerbates the situation and prevents the family from going through and overcoming the grieving process. The story seems also to suggest that is the very nature of their culture to impede an effective recovering from the loss.

Conservatism and paralysis

Traditionalism and conservatism tend to strengthen conformism and the culture of respectability into a system of dynamics which is not able to foster truthfulness and courage to face reality. The silence is the only weapon against an unbearable sorrow. Harriet’s reaction is different from that of her family, that faces reality through resignation and good manners. However, her behaviour is described through a confused and vague narrative line.

Some of the events told have no real connection with the thematic core of The Little Friend and they seem to distract from Harriet’s actions. Hence at times one has the impression to get lost in a series of uncorrelated occurrences. On the other side, the characters’ psychological analysis is presented in a very detailed way and this plausibility seems to balance the lack of linearity among the facts that surround our characters, creating that peculiar rhythm, or better, slow gait that marks the distinctiveness of this novel.

Reading The Little Friend

This long story draws a family portrait at the same time immobile and slippery. The reading, though, is not fluid and there are moments when stylistic accuracy and meticulosity is not proportional to the narrative density of the told facts. Besides, considering these very traits of the prose, the ending seems to arrive too hastily and to be almost improvised.

Notwithstanding an excess of accuracy and the impression of a too dispersive plot, the characterisation of the family system and the setting make the reading of this novel a unique and interesting experience that we are glad to have completed. Now we are looking forward to reading The Goldfinch, her masterpiece and last novel.

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