” Twelve years after Robin’s death, no one knew any more about how he had ended up hanged from a tree in his own yard than they had no the day it happened. ” (Ch.1, p.17)
The Little Friend opens with a gripping mysterious death: on Mother’s Day, 9-year-old Robin Dufresnes was found hanging by the neck from a piece of rope, slung over a low branch of a tree sitting on the overgrown hedge. Atmosphere and tone are perfectly set for a southern Gothic mystery: who or what could have possibly been able to appear in someone’s backyard, while the entire family is within earshot, two kids sitting on the back porch, and grab a little boy and hang him in a tree, and leave no trace. It also provokes that grisly lynching from the recent past.
She tried to calm herself down. Danny Ratliff had killed Robin; she knew it was true, it had to be. And yet when she tried to remind herself exactly how she knew it was true, the reasons were no longer so clear in her mind as they had been and now . . . (Ch.9, p.611)
Death has tainted the family. By the time Harriet reaches puberty, her mother has retreated into a melancholic stupor and her father, a country-club vulgarian, has decamped to Nashville. Harriet and her sister Allison become portégés of their three aunts, one of whom is Libby, a spinster. Seized with a child’s superstitious sense of purpose, Harriet, now 12, takes investigation in her own hands. She begins poking around and soon finds herself mixed up with the Ratliff brothers—a preacher, a meth dealer, a felon, and one of whom, Danny, she makes her suspect.
The book is set in the 1970s, in Mississippi, which, as Tartt brilliantly illustrates, is plagued by the persistence of racial injustice and spooky implication, like dead cats, dying blackbirds, and poisonous snakes. But these literary elements bear no relevance to the story line—depending on what reader wants the story to be.
Harriet, ushered by her curiosity, enters a world of the ugly, the furious, and the reckless. Her investigation, to some readers’ dismay, is inconclusive. The prose is beautiful, full of a fever-dream realism. But the story waxes poetically into a never-ending stream of consciousness. It grips you like a fairy tale, but denies you the consoling assurance of the truth. It’s a portrait of a stagnant family. The ending is frankly frustrating (especially after slogging 600 pages), for most of its length, it lacks the drive of a book that needs to be written.
624 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]