The Little Friend

The Little Friend

October 22, 2002

The Little Friend is a literary mystery novel by Donna Tartt. First published in 2002, it tells the story of a young girl determined to find out who killed her brother many years ago, and the complex family problems she uncovers as a result....

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The Little Friend is a literary mystery novel by Donna Tartt. First published in 2002, it tells the story of a young girl determined to find out who killed her brother many years ago, and the complex family problems she uncovers as a result.

The Little Friend is the second novel by Donna Tartt, initially published by Alfred A. Knopf on October 22, 2002, a decade after her first novel, The Secret History.

Donna Tartt (born December 23, 1963) is an American writer, the author of the novels The Secret History (1992), The Little Friend (2002), and The Goldfinch (2013). Tartt won the WH Smith Literary Award for The Little Friend in 2003 and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Goldfinch in 2014.She was included in Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People" list, compiled in 2014



    2003 WH Smith Literary Award – The Little Friend

    2003 Orange Prize for Fiction shortlist – The Little Friend

    2013 National Book Critics Circle Award (fiction) shortlist – The Goldfinch

    2014 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction shortlist – The Goldfinch

    2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – The Goldfinch

    2014 TIME 100 The 100 Most Influential People

    2014 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence for Fiction – The Goldfinch

    Vanity Fair International Best Dressed List, 2014

    2014 Malaparte Prize (Italy) – The Goldfinch





    The Secret History (1992, Alfred A. Knopf)

    The Little Friend (2002, Alfred A. Knopf)

    The Goldfinch (2013, Little, Brown)


Short stories


    "Tam-O'-Shanter", The New Yorker, April 19, 1993, pp. 90–91

    "A Christmas Pageant", Harper’s 287.1723, December 1993, pp. 45–51

    "A Garter Snake", GQ 65.5, May 1995, pp. 89ff

    "The Ambush", The Guardian, June 25, 2005




    "Sleepytown: A Southern Gothic Childhood, with Codeine", Harper’s 285.1706, July 1992, pp. 60–66

    "Basketball Season" in The Best American Sports Writing, edited and with an introduction by Frank Deford, Houghton Mifflin, 1993

    "Team Spirit: Memories of Being a Freshman Cheerleader for the Basketball Team", Harper’s288.1727, April 1994, pp. 37–40




    The Secret History

    The Little Friend (abridgement)

    True Grit (with an afterword expressing her love of the novel)

    Winesburg, Ohio (selection)


Superficially, The Little Friend is a mystery adventure, centered on a young girl, Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, living in Mississippi in the early 1970s and her implicit anxieties about the unexplained death of her brother Robin, who was killed by hanging in 1964 at the age of nine. The dynamics of Harriet's extended family are a strong focus of the novel, as are the lifestyles and customs of contrasting Southerners.


Speaking to The Guardian in 2002, Tartt described The Little Friend as "a frightening, scary book about children coming into contact with the world of adults in a frightening way." She told the interviewer that The Little Friend was intentionally different from The Secret History, stating "I wanted to take on a completely different set of technical problems. The Secret History was all from the point of view of Richard, a single camera, but the new book is symphonic, like War And Peace. That's widely thought to be the most difficult form."


David Hare

On Mothers' Day, in the early 1960s, in the fictional town of Alexandra, Mississippi, a nine-year-old boy is found hanging from the branch of a black tupelo tree in his parents' garden. The sudden, unsolved act of violence - the inexplicable murder of the universally adored young son - becomes the unreferred-to catastrophe which sends a whole extended Baptist family of grandmothers and great-aunts into displacement and grief.


Ten years later, it is Robin's stubborn, bookish sister Harriet, only a baby at the time of his death, who becomes fixed on the idea of avenging his murder. At the age of 12, Harriet sets off in the company of her sole friend, a sweet boy named Hely Hull who is hopelessly in love with her, to deliver justice to the person she wrongly imagines to be his murderer. Over a single sweltering summer, Harriet and Hely follow a course of oddly innocent, oddly misguided revenge.


Nobody, it's clear, knew quite where on earth Donna Tartt would choose to go next after her brilliant debut novel of 10 years ago. The opening pages of The Secret History, set among the privileged undergraduates of a tony Vermont college, announced the arrival of someone born with a thriller writer's most important and distinctive gift: the apparently effortless genius for milieu, the ability to imagine and populate a singular and believable parallel world, a place which is like our own but which is somehow subtly displaced. Here was a writer who could create a moral universe in which we felt instinctively we might be able to live, even though it wasn't, in outline, entirely the one we knew as our own.


Tartt shared with the two greatest English novelists of our age - Graham Greene and John le Carré - the sine qua non for all those who seek to write compelling suspense fiction: the basic flair for slapping the paint on thick. Whatever it was Donna Tartt came up with next, it seemed likely to be set in a place and at a time which she would manage to make entirely convincing.


It's a disappointment, then - at least for those of us who love crime fiction - to have to admit that by putting two 12-year-old children into a narrative where they are forced to go running after Danny Ratliff, the amphetamine-popping runt of a redneck litter whose family business is the manufacture of illicit crystal meth, Tartt is inevitably steering her talents, via deliberate reference to Harriet's own passion for Robert Louis Stevenson, into an area which is closer to children's adventure than it is to the conventional thriller.


By the time you have been introduced to a small town peopled by leering white-trash psychopaths who have shot themselves in the eye and by tattooed preachers who reel off religious text while at the same time clumsily handling poisonous snakes, then you may sense that perhaps you are ringside at a circus whose performers were reared more in literature than they were in life.


The portrait of the Deep South 30 years ago, with its decaying colonial houses with names like Tribulation and its battery of tragic spinster women, manages at once to be both authentic and, at the same time, second-hand. At the point when the demands of the plot force our young heroes, Little Hat and Little Hel, to drop hissing cobras over bridges, thereupon to wrap themselves round the necks of the drivers of passing cars ('Aiiiieeeeeeee, it wailed') then you feel that the pudding, hitherto merely over-egged, has become positively toxic.


The mix is part Enid Blyton, part Harper Lee. It comes to seem only a matter of time before Atticus Finch, in a white suit and preferably in the square-jawed form of Gregory Peck, will amble reassuringly into view, scooping up little girls on to his knee and promising us that the Bible ain't such a bad book really, just a matter of what you take from it.


Gore Vidal memorably remarked that it was his singular fortune before becoming a novelist to work first in film and television, because these were the media which taught him what he called 'the strict disciplines of relevance'. But the fact that no one has managed, even after a decade of trying, to make a workable screenplay from The Secret History suggests something curious about Donna Tartt's work. She's an unusual writer because the most thrown-away bits are often the best.


After a spectacular prologue which insidiously invokes the horror of the little dangling corpse, Tartt lets her story go off in a thousand directions, yielding 565 pages of Southern Gothic which find their climax on a deserted water-tower with bullets flying and blood spurting. But the truly outstanding passages of the book concern much quieter things, in particular the impact of the original crime on the desolated, fractured household.


It is when Tartt almost glancingly describes the daily, lethargic weight of the sorrow that affects a family torn apart by the death of its most wanted child that she reveals her extraordinary qualities. Through Harriet's eyes and thoughts, Tartt gives us an adolescent's view of an inconsolable mother, Charlotte, who has more or less abdicated life altogether, wandering a newspaper-filled house without purpose or pleasure; of an almost vanished father, Dix, who has deserted the home to join an unseen but vividly imagined mistress in Memphis; and of the loyal black servant Ida Rhew, who, for 20 dollars a week, has long held the family together after the tragedy, and who is unforgivably let go.


When Tartt moves into this area, then she is slap in the traditionally powerful territory of children's literature: the mysterious unknowability of your parents' love either for yourself or for each other, the question of how much any of us will or will not therefore feel alone in the world for the rest of our lives.


The Little Friend takes a startling lift of conviction whenever the author lays aside her Famous Five narrative and goes instead into a sort of novelistic free-fall, describing the bruised emotions of the overlooked child.


'What "growing up" entailed [in life as in books] was a swift and inexplicable dwindling of character. With distaste Harriet reflected upon how life had beaten down the adults she knew, every single grown-up. Something strangled them as they grew older, made them doubt their own powers - laziness? Habit? Their grip slackened; they stopped fighting and resigned themselves to what happened. "That's Life." That's all they said. "That's Life, Harriet, that's just how it is, you'll see." Well: Harriet would not see.'


In seeking a reason for the delay since Donna Tartt last published, a prurient press has been keen to suggest all manner of explanation, except the most obvious. Surely, she simply wanted it to be good. Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen have lately set the bar so exhilaratingly high for the American novel that you feel some sympathy for those of their daunted colleagues who no longer even bother to jump, but who instead just run along under and hope nobody notices.


Tartt, to her credit, gives it a go. No beach-bound horizontal consumer of the higher hokum is going to let the author of The Secret History's second book pass by unread, though what they will find is frankly frustrating. For most of its length, The Little Friend lacks the drive of a book that needs to be written, even if it offers the considerable pleasures of being the work of someone who knows how to write.

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