On the brink of adolescence, and all its hormonal storms, a clever but wildly imaginative girl makes up a story from fragments of hearsay and fantasy. Moulded by the yarns of daring and detection she has read, this story will transform her world over a single, clammy summer. The effectively fatherless child of an élite family, she lives in a sleepy, class-bound backwater. Her book-bred fancies will push a marginal young man into the glare of shame and ruin. But the tale-spinner will repent, and the curtain drop on a self-dramatising childhood.
As its legion of admirers knows, so runs the main action of Ian McEwan's Atonement. Before long, an equally vast army will also recognise the outline of Donna Tartt's The Little Friend. The Mississippi-raised writer's first novel since The Secret History, a decade ago, has turned into a sort of second coming. Disciples have expected wonders, waiting with a millennial zeal that exceeds anything found among the backwoods holy-rollers who lurk within these sultry pages.
Yet, for me, that coincidence represents the greatest revelation of all. On either side of the Atlantic, two virtuosi of the slow burn, the eerie mood and the sudden jolt have created succulent and sinister fictions out of the catastrophic end of childhood. Both focus on the place of other people's tales in hastening that end. For McEwan and Tartt alike, the narrative art that feeds young minds may also seed a child's garden of curses.
Tartt's followers will crave a second dose of the brooding atmospherics, high-voltage suspense and stately retro-rhetoric of her début. The Little Friend delivers that, and more. In a literary age of diet and dearth, Tartt invites us to feast. At its best, her calorific prose embodies (like the black housekeeper who plays a pivotal role here) "the variety and noise of life itself".
In a heart-squeezing prologue, nine-year-old Robin Cleve Dufresnes is found hanging from a tupelo tree in the family yard as a spring tempest brews and "a ravelled wire of lightning flashed in the black clouds". The opening tragedy strikes a note of rich, flamboyant Southern Gothic that resonates throughout. If The Secret History explored the snowbound Yankee world, here Tartt comes home, in every sense, the milieu regularly matching her own early history.
A dozen years later, bookish and stubborn Harriet ("like a small badger") resolves to clear up the unsolved mystery of her brother's death, which took place when she was a baby. Although her besotted pal Hely tries to help, mostly he gets in the way. Meanwhile, Harriet's adulterous banker of a dad has decamped to Nashville. Brisk and capable Edie (the fiercest of four great-aunts) stands in as parent for Harriet's actual mother, the traumatised and tranquillised Charlotte.
Edie, in fact, plays more of a father's role. The real mothering for tough little Harriet and her tender older sister, Allison, comes from Ida Rhew: the beloved but exploited housekeeper to this old plantation family. Relics from their demolished mansion, "Tribulation", clutter the aunts' homes. The past clogs the present and blocks the future, for all the period allusions to Scooby Doo, The Carpenters and Herbie Rides Again.
Against the Cleves' world of women (depicted with huge charm) stands the testosterone-driven tribe of the "sorry" Ratliffs. One of their whelps, Danny, becomes Harriet's prime suspect in her bicycle-powered summer investigation. Archetypal white trash, lawless and inbred, the Ratliffs hang out in their trailers amid the pines, cooking up methamphetamine in a foul midden of mind-bending chemicals and electrical junk. This frightful (and hilarious) clan lets Tartt indulge her Dickensian taste for grotesques, from the disfigured convict-turned-cleric Eugene to the retarded gentle giant, Curtis.
Inspired (and misled) by a library of children's classics, Harriet sets out to nail hapless Danny. Her quest unfolds across a parade of show-stopping set-pieces which work magnificently. Harriet and Hely hunt snakes (as torments for Danny) in a reptile-infested swamp where cynical developers have planted yuppie homes. They grapple with yet more serpents, this time kept in crates "like a cavern of pirate treasure" by a snake-handling "preacher" as cover for drug-running.
Unsurprisingly, the kids' snake-assisted vengeance goes brilliantly awry. At length, after an uneasy lull, Harriet and her target meet in a close-focus, slo-mo showdown that leaves her (like her idol, Captain Scott) tasting "victory and collapse" at once.
Before this final act, Harriet has done time at a dismal Baptist summer camp: a gruesomely funny tour de force. She loathes the touchy-feely advice about "puberty" and gags at the awful prospect of mutating into "Teen Girl", "a creature without mind, wholly protuberance and secretion". We grasp that her deluded pursuit is the last gasp of a story-swaddled childhood.
With its pre-teen sleuths on bicycles, its broad-brush villains and oddly invisible police, The Little Friend courts absurdity time and again. A novel about the force and fraud of children's literature, it shares plenty of improbable conventions with that genre. It also flirts at every stage with kitsch and, in so doing, muddles the categories of "literary" and "popular" fiction even more thoroughly than The Secret History did.
Critical puritans (or merely Yankees) will point to its Dixie weakness for verbosity, caricature and melodrama. Yet the verbosity yields passages of mesmerising beauty; the caricature, stretches of delirious comedy; and the melodrama, moments of nerve-shredding excitement. At its close, few readers will wish The Little Friend a page shorter, or a shade paler. In fact, some may hanker for a missing coda: the lofty hindsight with which McEwan rounds off Atonement. Tartt, in contrast, leaves us to envisage the future, and to predict that Harriet's adulthood will not mean the "swift and inexplicable dwindling of character" that bothers her in stories where the heroines gave up on adventure, wedded some "dull sweetheart" and "generally started acting like a bunch of cows". Huge herds of readers will fervently hope that Donna Tartt's adventures in fiction are to be continued. Next time, though, she shouldn't stay out for 10 whole years before dawdling back to tell us all about them.
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