Donna Tartt is known for writing extremely long books over extremely long periods of time. Every decade since 1992 she’s produced a single volume, nearly as wide as it is high, to huge critical anticipation and acclaim.
All I’ll say about her first book, ‘The Secret History’, is that it was so good it allowed her this generous writing schedule. Set in a college campus and self-consciously following tragic Greek conventions, it narrates the downfall of a claustrophobic and elitist intellectual circle of friends. Despite its daunting length, the tight structure makes it a genuinely pacey read; it is an engrossing literary thriller that deserves all the praise it has garnered over the years.
After such an introduction I have, theoretically, no one but myself to blame for not actually reading her second novel, ‘The Little Friend, until earlier this year. I say ‘theoretically’, because I think I have some excuse in the fact that it was never highly recommended in the manner of its predecessor. General consensus seemed to be that it was a very readable but no modern classic. Yes it had won the Orange Prize for Literature, but word of mouth didn’t rate it anything like as high as Tartt’s un-garlanded debut.
In the end, of course, resistance was futile. Not only had I recently re-read and re-enjoyed ‘The Secret History’ but Tartt had a new book out and was being interviewed all over the place as part of her new publicity campaign. She was so charming and intelligent I felt I had no choice. How could I not read her entire oeuvre (it’s only 3 books), and could she please be my new best friend?
As you may have noted, my expectations were high. They were only increased by my realisation that the novel’s set up revolves around the unsolved murder of a young child, the expectation being that his twelve-year-old sister, a baby at the time of the tragedy, will attempt to solve the crime that baffled adults. Two of my favourite novels of the last decades have dealt with delayed justice for the disappearance of children, ‘What Was Lost’ by Catherine O’Flynn and ‘Case Histories’ by Kate Atkinson. If any author could follow such successes, it would be Donna Tartt.
To an extent, she manages it. The novel contains some wonderful characters and superbly grotesque set pieces. Eschewing the cool classicism of ‘The Secret History’, this later book is set in the gritty and sweaty south. Descriptions of evangelical mystics will win over fans of The Southern Gothic (I haven’t time to explain what this is, but you know who you are) and there are some lovely depictions of childhood reminiscent of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.
Overall, however, this review shows the limitations of the novel. I would always recommend, ‘What Was Lost’, ‘Case Histories’, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and a huge host of Southern Gothic novels (maybe some other time) before ‘The Little Friend’. Interesting though the individual vignettes are, the book lacks the superb coherence of ‘The Secret History’. It never feels shorter than its close-to-600-page length and leaves the reader exhausted rather than utterly satisfied. Read it if you’ve time and want to become a Tartt expert. Don’t read it before the other books named in the paragraph. Donna, I hope you don’t mind, and I still want you to be my best friend.