Literature: The secret history of Donna Tartt

  • @johnhenrywalsh

Her production rate may be arthritically slow, but the news will delight her fans. The cultish American novelist Donna Tartt will publish another book in October – her third, after the international bestseller The Secret History (1992) and its follow-up, The Little Friend (2002).

Observing her fondness for a 10-year gap in publication, readers in 2012 wondered if that year might bring a new work. Little Brown, her publisher, revealed it has been sitting on the new book since 2008, and had pencilled in a 2012 launch date – but it was mysteriously pushed back.

Last summer the book was still untitled. It now has a title, The Goldfinch, and concerns a young New York boy who survives an explosion that kills his mother, lives rough and is drawn into the “art underworld” through his obsession with a small painting.

Tartt, 49, is big on youthful obsession. The Secret History, set in a posh college in Vermont, traces the lives of six classics students whose adventures take on the dimensions of a Greek tragedy and involve them in a murder. The Little Friend concerns a girl called Harriet who is obsessed with her brother’s death, stalks the man whom she thinks responsible until he becomes obsessed with her. Murder, guilt, unpunished crime and death of innocence are  her themes.

Tartt’s books have a voice that’s dry, calm, allusive and unexcitable, even when she’s telling you shocking things. She’s also famous for her love of privacy.  She hasn’t given an interview since 2003 and was always reluctant to discuss her personal life. So readers have themselves become a little obsessed with her: with her 1920s bob haircut; her position in the so-called Brat Pack who took US fiction by storm in the 1980s; her friendship with Bret Easton Ellis; her fondness for the novel True Grit, which she has narrated on audiobook; that her great-grandmother was Scottish and read her the works of J M Barrie and R L Stevenson. 

Stand by for a flurry of excitement in October as the transatlantic literati compete to interview her – and try to find out why the new book has taken so long…