Happy World Book Day! It seemed appropriate to write a blog post today in honour of the occasion, although unfortunately this review might not be as positive as I’d like. I got The Little Friend as yet another Christmas present – this one from my dad, again. I hadn’t heard of Donna Tartt before but she’s an American writer who seems to publish her books ten years apart, leaving readers with a real sense of anticipation. In particular, The Secret History was renowned, so I was optimistic that this award-winning book (published in 2002) would be a nice addition to my bookshelf. I’ll mention now that this review does contain spoilers, but if you DO read this entire blog post, I don’t think you’ll come out overly keen to pick it up.
To sum up. Harriet, our protagonist, is a precocious and steely twelve-year-old girl, living in a small town in Mississippi in what I assume is the 1970s, going by the pop culture references. When she was a baby, her older brother, nine-year-old Robin, beloved by all, was found hanging from a tree in the front garden. The general consensus was that he was murdered, and the circumstances were suspicious – Harriet and her older sister Allison were in the garden, too (Allison being around four years old at the time), the family was nearby, and he only disappeared for a moment. The incident shouldn’t have happened to all intents and purposes and as a result, the entire Cleve family (consisting generally of a matriarchy of Harriet’s grandmother and her sisters) refuse to reflect on the memory. Harriet, however, grows up curious – and at age twelve, sets about finding exactly what happened on that day and who she can punish as a result.
It’s a promising concept, and the blurb suggests a dark and menacing plot. The first chapter of the book is tense and well-written, and you go in feeling that if handled well, the book will be unforgettable. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. For an extremely long book (well over 500 pages), very little happens, and whilst the writing can be mesmerising at times, at other points it drags and removes any suspense or interest from a scene by slowing the pace so significantly. None of the characters are particularly likeable, Harriet probably the least so – I can’t think of one point in the book where she is actually happy. In any situation she’s in, she seems to find flaws, which doesn’t pass for great character development in my eyes and quickly becomes tedious. She has mild whims that seem downright ridiculous – throughout the first two thirds of the novel she seems obsessed with catching a poisonous snake (and there are enough of them around) and develops a strange interest in a junkie redneck family, one of whom she thinks is responsible for Robin’s death. Her motivations are barely explained, but she is fixated nonetheless. Alongside the narrative focusing on her life, we are also given an insight into said redneck family’s lives, the Ratliffs, who spend the vast majority of their time dangerously high. Unfortunately the dreamy sequences in these particular sections of the narrative are little relief from Harriet’s life.
Then there’s the fact that – spoiler alert – we never actually find out how Robin dies. The book seems to abandon this promising concept very early on, and it’s only mentioned again once or twice. I wouldn’t particularly mind (after all, it’s not unrealistic for a murderer never to be caught) but the way Tartt emphasises how IMPOSSIBLE it would have been to have murdered the child, given that he was surrounded by family and in the comfort of his own garden, ensures that you’re waiting for some kind of explanation. Without that, the book descends into fantasy – there’s no way that actually would have happened, therefore I refuse to accept it in a novel that’s intended to be realistic. I’m not entirely sure why Tartt included it at all – it would have been much more interesting to imply that Robin was suicidal (and still have Harriet obsessed with finding a culprit regardless) but nope. No explanation. Nada.
This leads on to another of my major qualms with the novel, how death was handled. While Tartt’s description of grief was beautifully poignant and really hit home, the deaths in the novel (or lack thereof) all felt contrived. Throughout the novel, various characters (and generally the bad guys) are victim to dangerous circumstances – an old woman is bitten by a huge, poisonous cobra, one man is shot in the head and then in the neck, another man who cannot swim is left to drown in a water tank. Despite these circumstances, they all survive. Similarly, right at the end of the novel, Harriet faces a scenario where she is forcibly drowned by another character, but she seems to miraculously pull through, too – somehow developing epilepsy (?!) in the process. The only character who actually dies (not including Robin) is one of Harriet’s great-aunts, which would have been tragic had we had enough character description to actually care who she was.
And of course… the title. Who ‘the little friend’ is is anyone’s guess. I presume from the book cover that it might be referencing a snake, but given that there a large number of snakes in the novel (and none of them bear any particular relevance to the central themes or plot), I’m not sure which one it’s referring to. In fact the original book cover seems to feature what looks like a doll’s head, so that blows my theory out of the water. It’s as if Tartt submitted the manuscript without a title, and the publishers just called it the first thing that came into their heads.
Now, despite all this raging criticism, my dad didn’t pick up this book at random. Aside from the fact Donna Tartt is fairly revered, the book is showered with praise. It won the WH Smith Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction (which we now know as the Women’s Prize for Fiction), and the reviews on the front, back, and first page of the book are glowing. Yet again, one of those baffling scenarios where a book is critically acclaimed but while you’re reading it, you’re just not sure why. Cue the reader identity crisis (is it me? Am I just too thick to get it?). But it’s true that not everyone has to love every book in the world, no matter how many critics fawn all over it. And I think I’ve highlighted enough of the problems prevalent in the text to feel confident about my own sense of judgement. As far as I can tell, there is no film or television adaptation, so I can’t compare it to see how well it measures up.
So, Goodreads review. Technically my Goodreads reviews says three stars, because I do feel like there was enough decent writing in it to deem it better than average, but I think I’m more inclined to give it two stars based on the disappointing plot. We’ll say two and a half, for good measure. Sorry, Donna – I’m sure I’ll read The Secret History one day, but this is not one I’ll be revisiting.
[Coming next: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez]