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The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt, KNOPF; 556 PAGES;
Donna Tartt's much-hyped second novel, The Little Friend, does not disappoint - but don't expect a follow-up to The Secret History
Saturday October 26, 2002
by Donna Tartt
555pp, Bloomsbury, £16.99
The appearance of Donna Tartt's second novel has been an event rather than just a publication. That happens from time to time, but the media rarely act in concert over a literary novel on quite such a scale. All these interviews and profiles, this concentration on the author's personality, her lifestyle, her sales figures and her deals, are threatening to suck the oxygen out of the critical debate. It is imperative to try to read The Little Friend for what it is, not for what it says about Donna Tartt or for how well it lives up to the hype.
Even if you could recapture a lost innocence, and open this novel with no expectations, you would be caught by the energy of its prose. Tartt starts this novel in a very similar way to The Secret History, with a matter-of-fact reference to a murder. "For the rest of her life," it begins, "Charlotte Cleve would blame herself for her son's death because she had decided to have the Mother's Day dinner at six in the evening rather than noon, after church, which is when the Cleves usually had it."
But this novel is not directly about a murder. It is about the effect that the murder has on the dead boy's family, and especially on his sister Harriet, who was less than a year old when he died, and is 12 when the novel begins. It is through Harriet's desire to come to terms with the past and find her brother's killer that Tartt paints her vision of family life in the American South. As Harriet trudges through one lonely summer, encountering misunderstanding, bereavement, solitude and straightforward cruelty, she drifts further and further into her obsessions. Eventually other, tougher, meaner characters are dragged into her warped world and she is almost destroyed by her attempts to exact pointless revenge on individuals who bear illogical grudges against her.
There are none of the aesthetic sweeteners of The Secret History here, none of its beautiful people and elegant plotting. In some ways it feels like a deliberate reaction to Tartt's first work. If The Secret History had one striking fault, it was the way the violence occurred so easily, even stylishly. There is a great deal of violence in The Little Friend, and it is executed in a very different style: bloody and unglamorised, with apparently endless repercussions of guilt and misery.
It is hard to give an example without giving away the plot, but the scene in which Harriet kills a bird is more shocking than the scene in The Secret History in which characters kill their own friend. "She slipped her hands underneath it, supporting its stuck wing as best as she could and - wincing against the wing beating violent in her face - lifted up. There was a hellish screech and Harriet, opening her eyes, saw that she'd ripped the stuck wing off the bird's shoulder. There it lay in the tar, grotesquely elongated, a bone glistening blue out the torn end." And so the scene continues for a few paragraphs, as the bird dies in her hands, its "eyes already dulled to a dumb incredulity".
You feel the physical reality of this scene as you read it. There is also no glossing, in this novel, over the emotional repercussions of violence. The whole book, the entire portrait of a troubled family and all its relationships, stems from the unsolved murder of one young boy.
Dysfunctional as this family is, it is also humanly convincing. Harriet herself is a true, spiky child, all odd angles and unexpected depths, and her brooding on the death of her brother seems all of a piece with her recalcitrant character. It is not only Harriet who is boldly drawn - her entire family pull away from and towards one another in a convincing portrayal of fractured domesticity.
Take, for instance, Harriet's mother, Charlotte, who rises from her tranquilliser-induced stupor to try to make friends with her children. There she sits, attempying conversation about bras and cheerleading with two disaffected daughters. "Her face was flushed, her eyes were bright, but beneath her cheer was a frantic and pitifully strained quality." In her recreation of southern society in the 1970s, Tartt also moves beyond the middle classes. Her treatment of the poor white families on the edge of town sometimes verges on caricature, but you will rarely have read better depictions of the relationships between white employers and their black servants.
Although her social ventriloquism can be effective, the difficulty that Tartt may have experienced in writing this large novel is echoed by the unevenness of its prose. At its best, her writing fuses seamlessly with its subject: heated when the events are heated, languorous when the moment slows, precise when she ferrets out the next turn of the plot. Yet at times she seems to be reaching for effects that she cannot control.
From the first pages of the novel, you are struck by her tendency to describe things in threes, in arching adjectival triplets. So when Charlotte Cleve mistakes a sound for her own son's bicycle, her heart "vaulted up for a soaring, incredulous, gorgeously cruel moment". Not long afterwards, as Harriet is examining family photographs, she sees her mother looking "airy, charming, sparkling with life", a china dinner service that is "heavenly, glorious, a complete set", and another photograph where the light is "fractured, sentimental, incandescent with disaster".
The hyperbole works as long as it is coupled to Tartt's precise descriptions or her accurate ear for dialogue. But even if she stumbles over details, the pace of this novel remains impressive. Tartt is able to make "reading time" slow down, so that you feel you are experiencing the events she describes in real time, or even more slowly than real time. This groggy, dreamlike pace is particularly effective at moments of high drama. One action scene, in which Harriet and her best friend are caught for a few hours between a set of poisonous snakes and two violent criminals high on drugs, takes up 24 pages of unflagging description, which will speed your pulse as if you were trapped along with the children.
Because of Tartt's mastery of suspense, this book will grip most readers all the way through to its bitter end. But as you reach the last page, you may well feel a sense of relief. Although this is a large novel, Tartt has created a claustrophobic world in which there is little possibility of freedom for any character. And although in a way this is Harriet's coming of age story, it has happened in a world so paranoid and so enclosed that you hardly believe she will ever be able to grow up.
Walter is the author of The New Feminism (Virago)
Sunday, October 27, 2002
WHO KILLED MY BROTHER?
A little girl promises to solve the mystery in Donna Tartt's second novel
Sunday, October 27, 2002
San Francisco Chronicle.
The Little Friend
By Donna Tartt
Jump down to the last two paragraphs of this review to find out who garroted Harriet Dufresnes' brother in Donna Tartt's much-anticipated, hypnotic but ultimately infuriating new novel, "The Little Friend." Readers who like ingenious surprises should of course skip those last two paragraphs -- and, unfortunately, Tartt's book along with them.
In the meantime, publication of "The Little Friend" clears up a 10-year-old mystery of its own: How could Donna Tartt ever make good on the phenomenal promise of her 1992 first novel, "The Secret History"? That book lives on in memory thanks to at least two claims to fame. For one thing, its jacket was made from clear celluloid, making it almost impossible nowadays to find a copy that doesn't look like a giant, inadvertently laundered collar stay. More important, "The Secret History" took the first idea for a story that ever occurs to most undergraduate novelists and filmmakers -- murder in the stacks, natch -- and actually turned it into a good book.
It's tempting to read "The Little Friend" as Tartt's artfully sublimated freak-out at having to top one of the most acclaimed first novels in modern publishing history.
As "Friend" opens, 12-year-old Harriet makes up her mind to solve the murder of her impossibly beloved brother a decade before. Robin was roughly Harriet's age when somebody strung him up from the branch of a tupelo tree behind their Alexandria, Miss., home, but there the resemblance ends. Robin was cheerful, charming and altogether adorable -- in short, a popular and critical success no one could ever live up to.
By unflattering contrast, Harriet is sullen and manipulative. She's a runty bookworm, smart as hell but with an adorableness gene recessive to the point of nonexistence. Her mostly female family clucks over her, despairingly. When will Harriet ever bloom?
The parallels are hard to miss. Where Harriet tries to figure out whodunit, Tartt is asking, How did I do it -- and how can I do it again, only different? All the while, well-meaning authority figures gather around Tartt and her heroine solicitously, prodding and poking, all wanting to know the same thing: What's taking her so long? How long now? Soon?
Thankfully, neither Tartt nor her admirers need have worried. Right up till the end -- which, remember, will be spoiled in the final two paragraphs of this review -- she's everything a reader could want in a novelist. Funny, empathic, a demon plotter with a crack-shot sense of time and place, Tartt conjures up a jerkwater town in 1970s Alexandria with an unholy vividness that should have local Jaycees reaching for the tar brush.
Early on, Harriet fastens on a speed freak named Danny Ratliff as the logical suspect in her brother's lynching and plots vengeance. Danny and his whole sorry, inbred, paranoid clan are a brilliant invention, switching from hilariously stupid to frighteningly dangerous in the twitch of a meth-bleared eye. Affording Tartt the chance to show off her ear for obliviously self- incriminating dialogue, they say things like "The truck's not bad broke, just broke so she can't drive it," or "Ain't no need in making noise, innit?" That "innit" ought to remind Martin Amis fans of Keith, a.k.a "Keef" -- the darts- mad Cockney thug from "London Fields" who held the patent on moronic menace until the Ratliffs rode up, their muffler spitting sparks beneath them.
The predominantly male Ratliffs also provide a sly, tidy foil to the Dufresneses, Harriet's sweetly dotty, ever-bickering aunts and grandmother. Impatient readers may grow restless at all of Tartt's switching between the two families, but to tap one's foot or drum one's fingers during these side trips risks missing some gorgeously mean character writing.
Besides, Tartt's pacing is deeply, often uproariously self-aware. It races to keep up with the speeding, sleepless Ratliffs, then dawdles to share one of the Dufresneses' lazy, mosquito-buzzing afternoons. Best and most puckishly sadistic of all, Tartt reverts to languorous flashback at her moment of greatest tension, right after Harriet has dropped an Appalachian snake handler's prize cobra into the open sunroof of the Ratliffs' speeding bronze Trans Am. For the masochist lurking inside every connoisseur of literary suspense, Tartt is the dominatrix we've only dreamed about.
The only real flaw until the ending -- the ungentlemanly disclosure of which begins, don't forget, in the very next paragraph after this one -- becomes Tartt's too-frequent reliance on the staples of thriller movies. Harriet's climactic grapple with Danny high atop the town's water tower, with Tartt alternately entering each of their minds like a succubus, is nerve- racking enough already. We don't need to hear that "her foot had slipped, and she'd caught herself only at the last instant" or that she later escapes falling "just in time, as part of a board snapped off into the water."
Which brings us at last to the question of who throttled poor, defenseless Robin Dufresnes. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be sporting to reveal the book's ending, so never mind.
There. Surprise! Wasn't that daring, to set the reader up for a revelation that way and then withhold it at the last moment? Wouldn't it have been dishonest to sew things up in a nice, neat bow, when we all know life doesn't really work that way? Anybody who thinks so is welcome to the ending of "The Little Friend."
'The Little Friend' by Donna Tartt
Sunday, October 27, 2002; Page BW03
By Donna Tartt
Knopf. 555 pp. $26
Murder gets pride of place in the fiction of Donna Tartt. Like The Secret History, her first novel of a decade ago, The Little Friend starts with a prologue. And like that earlier prologue, this one introduces a murder that has already been committed. The Friend killing happened a dozen years before the late-1970s era of the book's main action, when the protagonist, Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, was an infant. Her charming brother, Robin, age 9, was found hanging from a tree in the Dufresnes' yard, in circumstances that ruled out both suicide and accident. Even before that dire day, the Dufresnes and Cleve lines ran heavily to females, and the loss of Robin hit the family especially hard. Now, on the cusp of adolescence, Harriet vows to occupy herself during what otherwise promises to be a boring summer in her small Mississippi town by discovering who killed Robin.
By no means a family favorite, Harriet is smart, stubborn, given to "grim pedantry" and cursed with the ability to cause consternation -- "not disobedient, exactly, or unruly," Tartt writes, "but she was haughty, and somehow managed to irritate nearly every adult with whom she came in contact." She even holds grudges against the heroes of the library books she wolfs down, for eventually those stalwarts always gave up and "abandoned their adventures for some dull sweetheart, got married and had families, and generally started acting like a bunch of cows."
Harriet's 16-year-old sister, Allison, with her "dreamy fragility," goes better with the cloth of Southern gentility that the family likes to drape around itself -- not much of the old money is left, and Tribulation, the mansion that burned down long ago, has come to symbolize the ruined Dufresnes finery. Charlotte, the girls' mother, has been vague and ineffectual in the years since Robin's death, and Edie, the maternal grandmother, has had to swallow her bitterness and run the family in her daughter's stead. There is a gaggle of great aunts -- Edie's sisters. Some of them never married -- and those who did have been widowed so long that they've reverted to spinsterhood. The father, Dix, never much of a force even when on the scene (Harriet writes him off as "one generation removed from country sorry"), lives in Memphis, officially because he has a good job there but actually because he can shack up with a mistress, send money back to Mississippi and stay out of gloom's way.
This set-up has some familiar ingredients -- it's not too far from Faulkner Meets Nancy Drew -- and the first hundred pages or so of The Little Friend struck me as a bit routine, with the writing occasionally sinking into cliché. ("It didn't matter if you talked until you were blue in the face," Tartt comments apropos of Edie's efforts to separate Harriet from her heretical notions of the Bible.) But gradually Harriet's prickliness comes to be not just understandable but defensible, and she manages to find and keep at least one friend, Hely Hull, her partner-in-detection, a slightly younger boy who is in thrall to her daring nature. And then, with the advent of the Ratliff family, my surrender to the novel became almost unconditional.
The Ratliffs (a name out of Faulkner, you may recall) are immediately recognizable, too: Southern trailer trash. But trash with a difference -- their livelihood is grounded in illegal substances. They make, take and sell methamphetamine, also known as crank or crystal meth, and Tartt imbues these drugged-out Snopeses with so much paranoid vitality that they rise far above their stock-character origins. One brother, Eugene, who got religion during a stint in the pen, has teamed up with a snake-handling preacher and now harbors a menagerie of caged vipers in a spare room of his apartment. Another brother, Farish, has his own trouble with vermin -- the imaginary kind that bedevil chronic users of crank. "Bugs crawled on every imaginable surface," Tartt writes from Farish's viewpoint during one of his freaky spells, "long, flowing trails that writhed along the grain in the floorboards. Bugs on your skin that you couldn't scrub off, though you scrubbed until your skin was raw. Bugs in your food. Bugs in your lungs, your eyeballs, your very squirming heart. Lately Farish had begun placing a paper napkin (perforated by a drinking straw) over his glass of iced tea to keep away the invisible swarms he perpetually swatted from his face and head."
Most memorable of all the Ratliffs is the grandmother, Gum, a sun-dried wisp of a woman who has been shriveling under the pressure of cancer and countless other ailments for decades but who simply will not die, not even when Harriet unwittingly brings her into close contact with a stolen cobra. How Gum came to be driving a grandson's Trans-Am under the overpass on which Harriet happened to be poised with that cobra tilted forward in an open box gets a full accounting in Tartt's meticulously crafted plot. Suffice it to say that this encounter is at once horripilating and hilarious -- and that in Gum, the viper meets its match. Gum's other job besides staying relentlessly alive is to administer timely put-downs designed to ensure that none of her grandsons makes good on the thought that he might escape the slough of uneducated shiftlessness in which the clan has long been mired.
Their beginnings may be schematically similar, but The Secret History and The Little Friend are very different books. The former is weightier, resounding with the echoes of Hellenic fatalism and Dionysian frenzy that Tartt worked skillfully into her narrative -- the college novel as tragedy. The latter is lankier, funnier, more Aristophanes than Sophocles (though The Little Friend is virtually devoid of the bawdiness that runs through Aristophanean comedy -- this is a PG-13 performance). Tartt makes no bones about her debt to Dickens -- one of those Cleve great-aunts is nicknamed Tattycorum, after the character in Little Dorrit -- and it might be useful to classify Tartt with another contemporary American novelist who practices the late-Dickensian virtues of intricate plotting, vivid characterization (especially by means of dialogue) and stylistic bravado: John Irving.
All these influences and throwbacks underscore what a traditional writer Donna Tartt is. If you demand of new fiction that it show you how to see the world afresh, you are excused from reading her. But if you are hungry for the "simple" pleasures of well-crafted, stylish and highly intelligent entertainment, you'll be glad to make the acquaintance of The Little Friend. •
Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.
For 10 years we've been waiting for Donna Tartt's second novel, The Little Friend. Was it worth it?
Sunday October 27, 2002
by Donna Tartt
Bloomsbury £16.99, pp565
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.
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
When it was published in 1992, Donna Tartt's debut novel, "The Secret History," became an immediate sensation. An enthralling gothic thriller about a group of effete college students and their involvement in two murders, the novel managed to be cerebral and gripping, self-consciously literary and ferociously entertaining at the same time, and it quickly became a cult best seller.
Her ungainly new novel, "The Little Friend," belongs to the same cross-genre of literary thriller-cum-bildungsroman, but it couldn't be more different in mood or execution. It takes place in a small Mississippi town, far removed from the snooty college depicted in that earlier book, and its literary polestars, Robert Louis Stevenson and Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," stand in sharp contrast to the books that informed "The Secret History," Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited" and Euripides' "Bacchae."
"The Little Friend" also turns out to be a far more emotionally resonant novel than its predecessor, and a much less satisfying thriller: awkwardly plotted, if keenly observed, and speckled with glittering set pieces that do not add up to a persuasive whole. It is a kind of changeling creature, neither caterpillar nor moth but something still in chrysalis, waiting to be born.
At its best, it attests to the maturation of the author's voice and her willingness to push her gifts in an ambitious new direction, to explore the intimacies of family and small-town life, the peculiar geography of childhood in all its dreamlike intensity and ennui, and the perils of storytelling and trying to mythologize the past. At its worst, it feels like a Frankenstein of a book, a lumpish collection of mismatched parts that even the author's virtuosic talents cannot transform into a coherent whole.
The novel begins with a harrowing prologue that recounts the death of a 9-year-old boy named Robin, who is found hanging, dead, from a tupelo tree in his family's yard one Sunday evening. This horrifying tabloid event will utterly alter the Cleve family's daily life. Charlotte, his mother, withdraws into a drug-induced stupor; his father, Dix, takes a job in another city and effectively cuts himself off from his family; his grandmother Edie turns increasingly cynical and sour; his sister Allison becomes a frightened, passive girl, given to bad dreams; and his baby sister, Harriet, develops an obsession with avenging his death.
The remainder of the book is far less fluent and poised than the prologue and takes place 12 years later. Harriet has become a spirited tomboy: part Scout (from "To Kill a Mockingbird") in her inquisitiveness, part Scarlett O'Hara in her willfulness and spunk. She is smart, rude, impulsive, uncompromising and bossy. She is also an ardent reader of adventure stories, and possesses both a theatrical imagination and her family's penchant for rewriting the past, that "narrowness of vision which enabled all the Cleves to forget what they didn't want to remember, and to exaggerate or otherwise alter what they couldn't forget." They are traits, we are portentously warned, that will get Harriet into a great deal of trouble.
Harriet soon becomes convinced that one of Robin's former schoolmates, a scruffy redneck named Danny Ratliff, is behind Robin's death, and she persuades her best friend, the worshipful Hely, to help her plot her revenge. Though Harriet is repeatedly warned to keep her distance from Danny and his family — which bears more than a passing resemblance to Dostoevsky's Karamazov clan — she and Hely are soon tailing Danny and his brothers, one of whom, the dangerously unstable Farish, is operating an illegal crystal meth lab.
Her plan is to get her hands on a poisonous snake and use it to kill Danny. Meanwhile Danny, who is in some ways Harriet's dark doppelgänger, has begun to suffer from speed-induced paranoia and delusions and has become fixated on the strange little dark-haired girl who keeps popping up in his life.
In "The Secret History," Ms. Tartt managed to make even more melodramatic and bizarre events (involving Dionysian rites and intimations of satanic power) seem entirely plausible, but this time around her storytelling is considerably less assured. While there are a series of thrilling sequences in this novel (involving Harriet and Hely's attempt to steal a cobra, their efforts to throw the snake into Danny's car, and Harriet's investigation of Farish's secret drug stash), these scenes feel like outtakes from a highly contrived action movie. They neither radiate a genuine sense of inevitability nor click together cleverly to form a pleasing narrative arc.
The strongest portions of "The Little Friend" deal not with Harriet's vigilante actions but with her mundane, day-to-day life: her contentious relationship with her sickly, woebegone mother; her affectionate reliance on the family housekeeper, Ida, who is summarily let go after decades of service; her loving, if sometimes embattled relationships with her grandmother and great-aunts. Ms. Tartt's portrait of the Cleve family possesses all the detail and luminosity of an old platinum photograph: she chronicles their emotional history, their mortgaged dreams and their intramural squabbles with consummate ease while showing us how familial traits and inclinations are handed down generation to generation, mother to daughter, aunt to niece.
Most of all, she makes palpable the losses that the family has sustained over the years: we are made to understand how Robin's murder, Ida's departure and the death of her great-aunt Libby have affected Harriet, and how these events have goaded her to seek refuge in the dangerous fantasy of avenging Robin's death. Ms. Tartt has also tried to show how very different sorts of disappointments have shaped the life of Danny Ratliff, but her attempts to dovetail the stories of these two desperate characters — one, a bitter and violent speed freak, the other a feisty 12-year-old girl — feel mechanical and forced, a high-concept Hollywood notion that proves to be a poor showcase for this writer's rich and variegated gifts.
Wednesday 30 October 2002
Light in a Gothic darkness
Jane Shilling reviews The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
Ten years ago, at the age of 28, the American writer Donna Tartt published a rich and enthralling first novel called The Secret History. It was an overwhelming success, with the rare, mysterious quality that makes the readers of such novels brood over them, force their friends to read them, modify their behaviour as a result of them.
This sort of thing begins, you imagine, by being extremely gratifying for the author, but may well turn out to be something of a curse eventually. At first, everyone expects you to do the trick again, and if you don't, the wiseacres consign you to the great scrapheap of one-trick authors, whose reserves of creativity were exhausted by a single, prodigious literary effort. All this and more has been said of Donna Tartt. But now the long gestation is over: The Secret History has a sibling, The Little Friend.
If an author can be said to specialise on the basis of two books, then Donna Tartt's speciality is a kind of psychic suffocation. Her narratives unfold in ominous chiaroscuro, the curtains seem always drawn in her interiors; outside a perpetual thunderstorm rages, metaphorically, if not in fact. The temptation to file Tartt under Southern Gothic would be irresistible, if the languorous darkness of her writing were not streaked with a fierce, sour lucidity.
For such a long book, The Little Friend has a remarkably straightforward plot. A nine-year-old child, Robin Cleve, is found hanged in his family's garden. His murderer is never found. Twelve years later his sister, Harriet, who was six months old when he died, determines to take revenge on the man whom she believes killed him. He is Danny Ratliff, a former classmate of Robin, now a strung-out drifter from a family of tragi-comic white trash. Harriet's deductive processes are flawed, but her determination is inexorable. In the end the task she has set herself takes on its own momentum, with Harriet as instrument, rather than instigator.
Plot, however, is not really what interests Tartt. There is something almost mechanical in the way she sets up the story with the death of the child, which is never thereafter given the emotional weight that one might expect. The brilliance of The Little Friend resides in Tartt's ability to observe with the skewed clarity of a child - or a drug addict. There is a sense of struggle in the opening chapter, as though the author had found it difficult to begin. But this changes into prose in which pathos, horror and comedy are woven into a texture of paradoxically mingled lightness and weight, like one of those exotic shawls that can pass through a wedding ring.
Though her prose is finely wrought, it is also highly readable. Once gripped, one gallops through this novel as through a volume of Dickens or Tolstoy, drawn towards the great final set-piece as though by a magnet. This is an old-fashioned sort of story-telling - unironic, without self-reference, the author concealed by her narrative as though by a cloak of invisibility. In a literary climate in which the forecast is always for a cool front of irony, such writing seems both exotic and delicious.
Incest, insanity and murder
John Lanchester reviews The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
Southern Gothic is an American literary genre with no British equivalent. It uses lush prose with a strong sense of Southern literary heritage (Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor), is set in the former Confederacy, and features at least three of the following ingredients: insanity, incest, inbreeding, extreme meteorological phenomena, fundamentalist religion, corrupt preachers, slave-owner guilt, black rage, fading gentility, violent white trash, fragrant subtropical plants. At least one main character always dies.
Donna Tartt's second novel, The Little Friend, is a spacious and ambitious example of Southern Gothic. It begins with the unsolved, apparently motiveless murder of a nine-year-old boy, Robin Cleve, at his family home in Mississippi. Twelve years later his younger sister Harriet, less than a year old at the time of the murder, becomes obsessed with the desire to find out who killed her brother, and sets out to solve the crime. Her investigations get her, and almost everybody else, into big trouble.
The Little Friend is a work more of character and milieu than of plot - this being one of the many respects in which it differs from Tartt's first novel, The Secret History (1991). The book is dominated by two families, whom Tartt uses to explore and describe the world of the South. The Cleves are down-on-their-luck genteel, expelled by financial troubles from their ancestral mansion, Tribulation (an unimprovable Southern Gothic name). Harriet's mother is still-grieving, distracted, flaky; her grandmother, Edie, is ferocious; her great-aunts Tatt, Adelaide and Libby are respectively selfish, sexy and neurotic. Harriet is devoted to her underpaid, overworked "Negro" housekeeper Ida. She is clever and bookish, with a special keenness for - another nice Southern Gothic touch - Scott of the Antarctic.
The other family at the centre of the book is that of the white trash Ratliffs. Grandmother Gum is the family matriarch, physically indestructible (she was given a month to live two decades ago), toxically racist, feared for cooking huge, inedible, compulsory, all-fried meals. Farish, the elder brother, has been psychotic ever since he shot himself in the head during a standoff with the police; since leaving prison he employs himself as a taxidermist and amphetamine manufacturer. Danny, his brother, the most presentable Ratliff, is Harriet's chief suspect for the old murder. Curtis, the third brother, is a simpleton ("I'm afret the Lord God didn't spend quite enough time on this one here," Gum explains). Eugene, the fourth brother, experienced a religious conversion following his near-blinding in a prison fight, and is now a preacher.
This range of characters, which comes with a fine selection of minor gargoyles, is one of The Little Friend's strengths. Another is the prose, which is rich, intelligent, and takes its time:
"Robin had been a giddy, fickle child - somber at odd moments, practically hysterical at others - and, in life, this unpredictability had been a great part of his charm. But his younger sisters, who had never in any proper sense known him at all, nonetheless grew up certain of their dead brother's favourite color (red); his favorite book (The Wind in the Willows) and his favorite character in it (Mr Toad); his favorite flavor of ice cream (chocolate) …and a thousand other things which they - being living children and preferring chocolate ice cream one week and peach the next - were not even sure they knew about themselves. Consequently their relationship with their dead brother was of the most intimate sort, his strong, bright, immutable character shining changelessly against the vagueness and vacillation of their own characters, and the characters of people that they knew; and they grew up believing that this was due to some rare, angelic incandescence of nature on Robin's part, and not to the fact that he was dead."
There is a lot to admire and enjoy in The Little Friend; too much so, in some respects, since the novel does lose momentum over its 555 pages. It is so different from The Secret History, so much less unified and plot-driven, that readers are bound to prefer one or the other book. Many will love the earlier novel more and I am, I think, one of them - though The Little Friend is in many respects the better book. Let's hope we don't have to wait another 10 years for Tartt's next novel.
A Mississippi Mowgli
Donna Tartt's debt to Stevenson, Conan Doyle, Kipling and Mark Twain
THE LITTLE FRIEND
557pp. Bloomsbury. £16.99.
0 7475 6211 3
At the end of Treasure Island , the main model for Donna Tartt’s much-anticipated second novel, The Little Friend , the discovery of Captain Flint’s treasure is almost an afterthought. Neither Squire Trelawney nor his associates have any real need for the money (unlike the adventurers in King Solomon’s Mines , another text cited in Tartt’s novel), nor much of a sense of what to do with it. As for their claim to the treasure, it is no stronger than that of Long John Silver or the pirates. The quest itself is morally void; it is the questing that matters. The ending of The Little Friend is similarly anti-climactic, but in a way that frustrates and disturbs. For the object of the quest in Tartt’s novel is deadly serious: the avenging of a child-murder. It is hard to see such an object as morally void, in the sense of neutral, or as unimportant.
Questing matters in adventure fiction, is what such fiction is about, because it feeds fantasy. For Stevenson, as for Freud, “the great creative writer shows us the realization and the apotheosis of the daydreams of common men” – and women, too, Tartt might add. Her heroine, Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, is twelve years old, and, like Jim Hawkins (whose age is unspecified in Treasure Island , though twelve is a good guess), is improbably bold, resourceful, precocious. Also like Jim, she comes from and seeks to escape a depressed background (in psychological terms; socially she’s better off, living “in a big house on a nice street”). Harriet comes from Alexandria, Mississippi, a small town much like Grenada, Mississippi, where Tartt herself was raised (according to interviews, in a family dominated by females, like Harriet’s family). When Harriet was not quite six months old, her much-loved nine-year-old brother, Robin, was found murdered: “hanging by the neck from a piece of rope, slung over a low branch of the black-tupelo”, a tree with leaves “glossy and leathery and so dark that they were nearly black”. Robin’s death crushes the family, and the continuing grief of Harriet’s depressive mother and older sister, Alison, who was nearly five at the time and may have witnessed something, isolates her.
Harriet is also isolated by her character, which is sharp, stern, fiercely analytic. If Haggard and Stevenson are Tartt’s models, so, too, is Conan Doyle. Of Harriet’s many heroes from fiction, “the greatest of them all was Sherlock Holmes.” In addition to having something of Holmes’s cold cleverness, Harriet has a Watson-like sidekick, the buffoonish Hely Hull. Hely’s boyishness frequently irritates and exasperates Harriet; his devotion to James Bond movies is an exact, though less tedious, equivalent of Tom Sawyer’s romance-mongering at the end of Huckleberry Finn. One of the pleasures of her novel is watching Tartt map the familiar tropes and motifs of classic adventure fiction on to the contemporary setting (or near-contemporary setting, since the story takes place in the 1970s, when Tartt herself would have been Harriet’s age). After a death-defying, Houdini-like escape, for example, Harriet rips off her clothes, feels a hideous “rottenness” rise “ripe and warm from the pores of her skin” and dumps half a box of “Mr. Bubble” into the tub.
The rottenness Harriet can’t seem to wash away derives from methamphetamine or speed. The novel’s chief villain, Farish Ratliff, horrible head of the redneck Ratliff family, has hidden the speed in the town’s water tank, and in the novel’s slam-bang concluding episodes Harriet nearly drowns there, barely escaping the clutches of Farish’s murderous brother, Danny. What Harriet is doing up in the tank is snooping. Tartt offers very few clues as to the identity of Robin’s murderer, but the most vivid of these comes from the family maid, who remembers chasing poor white boys away from the house just before Robin’s body is discovered. One of Robin’s school friends at the time, Danny Ratliff, was such a boy, and Harriet takes it into her head that he must have committed the murder. Danny, like his older brother Farish, is a speed freak. Farish also makes and deals speed. Their younger brother Eugene is training, not very successfully, to handle snakes; his devotion to God is described as “vocal, un-wavering, and driven by terror”. Youngest brother, Curtis, the only brother not to have served time in a penitentiary, is mentally defective. The Ratliffs live in the woods in a string of malodorous trailers. Their tiny, repulsive grandmother, Gum, who feeds them greasy meals which they are too wired to eat, is forever cautioning them against expecting anything from life.
The comic horribleness of the Ratliffs, especially that of Farish, is the best thing in the novel. Though charmless, Farish dominates every scene he is in, like Long John Silver, a resemblance Tartt encourages, as when she describes him as “swaying like an old sea captain”. Stevenson’s friend W. E. Henley called Silver the real hero of Treasure Island. Something of the same might be said of Farish in The Little Friend. To begin with, there is his appearance: he is enormous, one-eyed (the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound), jumpsuited (“in a United Parcel uniform, with a hole in the chest where the label was cut off”, the sort of outfit he’d got used to “in the mental hospital”) and jittery, with “a rock of amphetamine the size of a pea” clinging to the moustache of his wet bushy beard. He is like Polyphemus on speed: “rattling with product, ding-dong to the eyeballs.” “Eat or be eaten” is Farish’s philosophy. When not boiling up crank, or disembowelling animals (taxidermy provides the Ratliffs with both a front and access to chemicals, masking “the distinctive cat-piss smell of the meth manufacture”), he likes to rip things apart: “if he was interested in something he had to cut it up and strew it all over the ground to make sure nothing special was inside”. Farish’s views about blacks, Jews, the federal government, are as you would expect. Like his brother Danny, he hasn’t slept in weeks, and his talk is pure paranoia:
“Sleep waves are magnetic ,” he said, tapping his forehead with two fingers, “get it? Get it? They can erase your whole mentality. You’re opening yourself to electro-magnetic capacity that’ll fuck up and destroy your whole loyalty system just like that.”
With villains like the Ratliffs the novel is obviously not intended for children. Also not for children (nor many adults, I suspect) is the leisurely pace of the narrative, at least in the first half. In addition to taking for ever to get started, the novel is filled with inconsequential, underpowered and derivative detail, about small-town Southern life, family ritual and history, Harriet’s daily routine, her mother and sister (who remain soppy and depressive throughout), her grandmother and great aunts (who are meant to be interesting, eccentric, endearing, and aren’t), an unctuous church deacon. After a purplish opening, in which the discovery of Robin’s body is recalled, a hundred or so pages pass before the first adventure. This adventure, like others to follow, involves snakes. Snakes are everywhere in Tartt’s Mississippi, and her depictions of them are terrific. When someone sets a nest or ball of them on fire, they glow and writhe “into a horrible life; one in particular had separated his head from the mass and waved back and forth blindly, like a windshield wiper on a car”.
Harriet’s self-possession, “lofty humourlessness”, intelligence and daring, recall Henry Winter, the most charismatic and dangerous of the student Dionysians in The Secret History (1992), Tartt’s first novel. Like Henry, what Harriet commands is respect or devotion, not friendship: “she could scare the daylights out of you, and you weren’t even sure why”. Harriet is not just drawn to piratical figures, she is one. In Treasure Island , Silver at one point calls Jim the picture “of my own self when I was young and handsome”. This is mostly flattery. Harriet, in contrast, really is dangerous. After she disdainfully dismisses Hely’s suggestions about how to damage Danny Ratliff, his hurt reply is: “Let’s hear your big idea, then.” Her answer: “I want to kill him.” Which is just what she sets out to do. She’s meant to be like Mowgli in The Jungle Book : “Mowgli was a boy; but he was also a wolf. And she was herself – Harriet – but partly something else.” Danny Ratliff calls her “a bobcat from Hell”, Aunt Tat “a bright-eyed tiger-cub”. Harriet has no interest in growing up or in children’s books which depict growing up, a process she sees as “a swift and inexplicable dwindling of character”. The thought of becoming a teenager, of the “slick oil” of puberty, revolts her. At the end of the novel, in a delirium, she dreams of the Hispaniola : “The ship was lost; she had tried to recapture it all on her own. She had almost been a hero.” Then she recalls Scott of the Antarctic, another hero, and realizes for the first time “that victory and collapse were sometimes the same thing”. She is prepared to die, in other words, even lead others to death, for the heroic life.
What is disturbing about such a view is implicit in the novel’s unsatisfactory ending. The effect Robin’s death has on his family has been too elaborately detailed for the reader to forget him, or to accept without protest the continuing mystery of its cause. Harriet’s “greatest obsession” was to have her brother back, and “next to that she wanted to find out who killed him.” Neither wish is realized. The satisfactions of her escape from the Ratliffs (like yet another of her heroes, Harry Houdini, she is “a master of escape”) are no compensation. The Ratliffs have been defeated, but as far as we know the Ratliffs did not kill Robin. Harriet’s fantasies are murderous and almost result in murder. In Treasure Island , adventure (or fantasy) overrides death, even the death of Israel Hands, whom Harriet recalls, with Jim’s guilty horror, “floating in the blood-warm waters”. Not here.
By A. O. SCOTT
''She did not care for children's books in which the children grew up, as what 'growing up' entailed (in life as in books) was a swift and inexplicable dwindling of character; out of a clear blue sky the heroes and heroines abandoned their adventures for some dull sweetheart, got married and had families, and generally started acting like a bunch of cows.'' These reflections belong to Harriet Dufresnes, the smart, unsentimental 12-year-old heroine of ''The Little Friend,'' Donna Tartt's large and satisfying second novel. As well as being an indomitable detective and an impressive underwater swimmer, Harriet is a pretty good literary critic. There is, after all, a vast, wholesome body of juvenile literature whose purpose is to ease the passage of the protagonist (and, by implication, the reader) into the flat pasturelands of adulthood.
But there is also, alongside this bovine canon, a darker, wilder tradition, a long shelf's worth of coming-of-age stories (not all of them intended for children) in which the passage to maturity is a harrowing ordeal, and in which adult self-awareness arrives with the force of tragedy. As indeed it will for Harriet herself, after a long summer of peril, adventure, frustration and guilt -- of growing up, in other words. ''Later, when Harriet remembered that day, it would seem the exact, crystalline, scientific point where her life had swerved into misery. Never had she been happy or content, exactly, but she was quite unprepared for the strange darks that lay ahead of her.'' In such books, the survival of the heroic child's character is precisely what is at stake, and those who triumph do so at a terrible cost. To grow up is to acquire the knowledge of cruelty and pain, to be initiated into the grim mysteries of experience and to live to tell the tale.
If Harriet seems unaware of the tradition to which she so clearly belongs -- or perhaps just too preoccupied with poisonous snakes, cretinous drug dealers, doddering aunts and an unsolved murder to read as widely as she might like -- the same can hardly be said of Donna Tartt. She has the insomniac sensibility of someone for whom reading has long been a matter of life and death, and clues to her taste litter the pages of ''The Little Friend.'' Harriet, the child of a Mississippi family near the end of a long decline from gothic gentility to middle-class normalcy -- vestigial Compsons in a world long given over to Snopeses -- flourishes in the company of other brave, lonely schoolgirl heroines, many of them also residents of the Deep South. Through the lush, thorny thickets of Tartt's prose, you can catch glimpses of Faulkner's rambunctious Caddy, of Scout from ''To Kill a Mockingbird,'' Frankie from ''The Member of the Wedding'' and, most delightfully, of another Harriet -- the sixth-grade spy from Louise Fitzhugh's children's classic.
Harriet shares some superficial traits with all of these characters: like Caddy, she is fond of climbing trees; like Harriet the Spy, she scribbles unkind observations in a notebook; as with Frankie, her closest confidante is the family's black housekeeper, Ida Rhew. But she is also linked to them by deeper affinities of temperament -- by a fierce, adolescent sense of right and wrong and by the dangerous habit of sticking her nose where it doesn't belong. If these aspects of her personality make her recognizable, they also make her memorable and unique: she is part of a literary sisterhood of smart, prickly loners, and as such she is likely to attract generations of loyal followers. ''The Little Friend'' seems destined to become a special kind of classic -- a book that precocious young readers pluck from their parents' shelves and devour with surreptitious eagerness, thrilled to discover a writer who seems at once to read their minds and to offer up the sweet-and-sour fruits of exotic, forbidden knowledge.
Tartt's first novel, ''The Secret History'' (1992), about the intellectual arrogance and murderous hubris of a group of college students, already enjoys a similar status. To read the book is to undergo an esoteric initiation rite -- to join a secretive cult made up of more than 5 million readers in 24 countries. Like its predecessor, ''The Little Friend'' will attract a mass of readers, all of them convinced that it was written especially for them.
''The Secret History'' was a murder mystery in reverse. The crime and its perpetrators were given away in the prologue, and what followed was a terrifying exercise in existential forensics, a kind of ''C.S.I.'' of the soul in which the detective went sleuthing after the sources of his own guilt. ''The Little Friend'' is, at least on the surface, a more conventional mystery, beginning with a killing that it will fall to Harriet to solve, even though it took place when she was just a baby. The victim was her 9-year-old brother, Robin, found hanging from a black tupelo tree one Mother's Day as his mother, grandmother and great-aunts fussed over a big family dinner. His death -- which, given the Southern setting, cannot help evoking the grisly history of lynching -- accelerates the unraveling of Harriet's family, which had recently abandoned its ancestral plantation home (called Tribulation) for ordinary houses in town. By the time Harriet has reached the brink of puberty, her mother has retreated into a melancholic stupor and her father, a country-club vulgarian, has decamped to Nashville. So Harriet and her older sister, Allison, find themselves the protegees of a tattered matriarchy overseen by their maternal grandmother, Edie, and their childless great-aunts, Libby, Tat and Adelaide.
With an idle summer ahead of her and her family's unhappiness entangling her like kudzu vines, Harriet decides, with a child's superstitious clarity of purpose, to seek out her brother's killers. ''What she wanted -- more than Tribulation, more than anything -- was to have her brother back. Next to that, she wanted to find out who killed him.'' With the help of Hely, a well-adjusted, shallow boy with a terrified crush on her, Harriet begins poking around and soon finds herself mixed up with the Ratliff brothers, one of whom, Danny, she makes her prime suspect. The Ratliffs, who run a methamphetamine lab in a shed on the edge of town, are like an infernal mirror image of Harriet's own family. Though their habits and dialect come close to caricature, their presence provides a jolt of scary, comic anarchy.
The brothers -- the rabidly paranoid Farish, the addlepated preacher Eugene and the speed-crazed Danny -- are also testament to Tartt's profligate gift for inventing bold, complex characters and for ensnaring them in webs of accident and fate. Her feel for the social landscape of the New South -- the book takes place sometime in the 1970's, though Tartt is blessedly sparing with gratuitous period details and pop-cultural references -- is remarkably acute. She illuminates the persistence of racial injustice and class antagonism, and captures the region's Babel of accents and idioms, from patrician hauteur to Pentecostal fire and brimstone to chamber of commerce unctuousness. ''The Little Friend'' is overgrown with symbolism and spooky implication -- Tartt has a special fondness for the creepy animal totemism of dead cats, dying blackbirds and poisonous snakes -- but it is also crowded with a bustling, ridiculous humanity worthy of Dickens.
What this all adds up to is a tragic, fever-dream realism. Though the world Harriet discovers is unquestionably haunted, there is nothing magical about it, or about the furious, lyrical rationality of Tartt's voice. Her book is a ruthlessly precise reckoning of the world as it is -- drab, ugly, scary, inconclusive -- filtered through the bright colors and impossible demands of childhood perception. It grips you like a fairy tale, but denies you the consoling assurance that it's all just make-believe.
Comparisons, in any case, are beside the point. This novel may be a hothouse flower, but like that fatal black tupelo tree, it has ''its own authority, its own darkness.'' ''This was the hallmark of Harriet's touch,'' Hely reflects. ''She could scare the daylights out of you, and you weren't even sure why.'' Harriet's gift is also Tartt's. ''The Little Friend'' might be described as a young-adult novel for grown-ups, since it can carry us back to the breathless state of adolescent literary discovery, when we read to be terrified beyond measure and, through our terror, to try to figure out the world and our place in it.
A. O. Scott is a film critic at The Times.
Tartt wins WH Smith prize
Wednesday March 19, 2003
The bestselling American writer Donna Tartt scooped her first British book prize last night after winning the £5,000 WH Smith literary award.
With only her second novel, The Little Friend, she beat plays by the long-established Tom Stoppard and short stories by fellow American Sam Shepard in a contest open to drama as well as fiction.
Tartt, 40, told the awards ceremony in London that the victory was a special honour because "the Little Friend is a love letter to the British novels of my childhood: Stevenson, Barrie, Dickens, Kipling and all the rest".
Her triumph came a day after the book earned her a nomination for the £30,000 women-only Orange fiction prize.
Her first novel, The Secret History, was seen as a modern classic, but was published 10 years ago, when fewer major British book prizes were open to American authors.
The new novel beat Stoppard's Coast of Utopia trilogy, Shepard's Great Dream of Heaven, Jeffrey Eugenides' novel Middlesex, The Mulberry Empire by Philip Hensher, and Iain Pears' Dream of Scipio.
The Little Friend is about a 12-year-old Mississippi girl's efforts to find the murderer of her baby brother.
Although the literary award is chosen by judges, other WH Smith prizes are chosen by votes via the company's bookstores or online and tend to mirror bestseller lists or titles given the best display in the stores. Some 62,000 votes were counted this year.
Jamie's Kitchen by Jamie Oliver took the home/leisure book prize; Sir David Attenborough's Life of Mammals won general knowledge while his Life on Air won the biography/autobiography category; Jacqueline Wilson's Girls in Tears won best children's book; Zane Radcliffe's London Irish won the new talent category; Alvin Hall's Your Money or Your Life won business; Ben Elton won the fiction prize with High Society; while Pete McCarthy's The Road to McCarthy topped the travel section.
THE YALE REVIEW OF BOOKS
Vol. 6, N.º 1 - Winter 2003
A murder mystery set in small-town Mississippi
Knopf, 480 pp, $26
reviewed by Sonja Ostrow
Writers, like pop stars, are often one-hit wonders. Assignation to this category seemed to be the fate of Donna Tartt, whose intellectual thriller The Secret History was published in 1992. That book describes a group of classics students at a tiny New England college, whose activities include “the search for truth and beauty.” They drink enough to make Hemingway proud and get caught up in two murders. The novel's blend of cultural sophistication and page-turning crime captivated the general public and the literati alike. After ten years, Tartt has almost delivered on their hopes for a worthy second novel. But The Little Friend deserves a better editor.
The Mississippi-born Tartt has set her story in a small town in her home state, populated by impoverished blacks, whites in trailer parks, snake-handling preachers, and a dying circle of aristocrats. The protagonist of the novel, Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, is a member of the latter group. Her brother, Robin, was brutally murdered when Harriet was still a baby. The summer of her twelfth year, Harriet decides to solve and avenge Robin's murder. A few chance remarks by her family's housekeeper lead her to pin the murder on Danny Ratliff, who is somewhat unwillingly following in the criminal footsteps of his father and brothers. Harriet plays the sleuth through the bulk of the novel, as the Cleves and Ratliffs get to know each other a little too well. All of it is quite predictable.
Though she writes beautiful sentences and the occasional thrilling scene, Tartt has lost the seductive power of The Secret History. Both novels are approximately 500 pages, but only The Little Friend drags. Many of its main players are undeveloped. The dead boy Robin is among Tartt's most three-dimensional characters, yet he appears only in the stories passed down by the Cleve family. Describing these stories, Tartt writes, “this clarity was deceptive, lending treacherous verisimilitude to what was largely a fabular whole, for in other places the story was worn nearly transparent, radiant but oddly featureless.” Gaudy language can't hide the blandness.
I couldn't help wishing that Tartt had turned away from Harriet and focused her story on Danny Ratliff. He alone among the characters grows throughout the novel. Aching to change but lacking the courage, he is more human, more real, than Harriet and her family. But he is easily manipulated. At the end of Harriet's fruitless quest—if it can be called an end—she muses on ways in which she can work Danny into a tale that promotes the idea of her own heroism: “rich possibilities of story began to open like poisonous flowers all around her.” The effect is chilling.
But this book should amount to more than the summer adventures of a little girl. In parts it's a coming-of-age story, a portrait of the decaying South, an exploration of race and racism, and a meditation on the effects of time. But none of these themes is allowed the chance to develop fully.
The end leaves you hanging, though you probably won't care what happens to Harriet and her family. If you're looking for a true successor to The Secret History, your wait is far from over.
Sonja Ostrow is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College
Uma Sinfonia para Orquestra Completa
Por DAN CRYER
Sábado, 22 de Março de 2003
Donna Tartt parece pequena no seu 1m50, mas quando abre a boca torna-se enorme. Não façamos caso da sua aparência de gnomo, pois quando fala revela ser uma mulher feita de partes iguais no que toca a uma inteligência fervilhante, uma veia artística obstinada e uma determinação ousada. Façam-lhe perguntas sobre livros e em breve estarão a dissertar sobre Brahms, mosaicos bizantinos e filmes hitchcockianos. Se lhe perguntam o porquê de alguma coisa contrapõe com um porque não. Donna Tartt é de facto muito opinativa e directa, a menos que seja sobre a sua vida pessoal. Aí, fecha-se em copas. Não nos surpreende que algumas destas características sejam visíveis em Harriet Cleve Dufresne, a heroína do último romance de Tartt, "The Little Friend", editado pela Knopf.
O livro abre com um assassinato numa pequena cidade do Mississipi, algures nos anos 60. Quando Harriet é ainda bebé, o irmão de 9 anos é encontrado morto, enforcado numa árvore no pátio das traseiras. Doze anos volvidos, Harriet transformou-se numa precoce e inquisitiva Maria-Rapaz, ávida em descobrir o assassino do irmão. Sob a direcção de Tartt, o livro começa com uma história de pôr os cabelos em pé, com Harriet no papel de detective, antes de se ir transformando num subtil romance de costumes, que expõe famílias e classes sociais num Sul ainda não homogeneizado, em contexto americano. O facto de Harriet estar de olho num suspeito provavelmente falso dá a dimensão da abordagem feita pela autora da natureza do mal.
Faz agora uma década que Donna Tartt se estreou na literatura com um enorme hiper-sucesso. Tinha na altura 28 anos. Fotos da frágil autora de olhos verdes e cabelo curto à moda dos anos 20 surgiram por todo o lado. A partir daí as suas palavras passaram a valer 450.000 dólares pagos adiantados. As críticas a "The Secret History", um romance estilizado sobre um assassinato num círculo de clássicos estudantes snobes numa faculdade para artistas, parecido com a "alma mater" de Tartt, Bennington, foram bastante elogiosas. As vendas das edições de capa dura e do livro de bolso ascenderam a mais de um milhão de cópias nos Estados Unidos e a um número bastante superior em mais de 21 países.
Da solidão da vida de escritora Donna Tartt foi empurrada para o frenesim dos "media". "O meu telefone nunca costumava tocar, a menos que fosse a minha mãe", lembra-se Tartt. "Repentinamente, começou um dia a tocar às 8 da manhã e nunca mais parou. A minha ocupação passou a ser atender o telefone."
A atenção dispensada por tantas pessoas pode proporcionar muita alegria a uma principiante que inicia súbita e milagrosamente uma carreira literária. Alice Sebold, cujo primeiro romance, "The Lovely Bones", integra a lista dos mais vendidos, é o exemplo mais recente.
Tartt está também consciente do excesso de publicidade, em que os mexericos e a aura do mito se intrometem na avaliação dos livros em si mesmos. Nota que Hemingway se tornou um escritor tão associado a actividades masculinas na mente do público que muita gente pensa que conhece a sua obra, apesar de não a ter lido.
Embora sentisse um certo desagrado quando teve que enfrentar a imprensa pela primeira vez, agora que o seu novo livro foi publicado foi obrigada a deixar outra vez a clausura. A sua vida pessoal, não sendo exactamente vedada a estranhos, é relatada com tão poucas palavras quanto possível. Ainda é solteira? "Não gosto de falar sobre assuntos dessa natureza", diz para no momento seguinte confirmar que é verdade, não usa de facto nenhuma aliança. A sua infância? A mais velha de duas filhas de Don e Taylor Tartt cresceu numa cidade no Norte do Mississippi, Grenada. O pai, Don, era funcionário da inspecção municipal e a mãe secretária na comissão estatal de emprego.
O relacionamento de Tartt com os pais não podia ser mais diferente. "Nós não nos damos, o meu pai e eu. Não temos tido contacto de espécie alguma nos últimos 20 anos", afirma. Com a mãe, pelo contrário, tem um relacionamento muito próximo. "Falamos ao telefone todos os dias." O que não diz, um facto do conhecimento geral, é que o pai, Don, e a mãe, Taylor, não viveram muito tempo juntos, nem mesmo durante o seu casamento, que acabou em divórcio.
Quando, porém, regressamos às questões da literatura e à arte da ficção, Tartt, torna-se mais expansiva. Porque é que houve um intervalo tão grande entre os seus dois livros? "Deve-se ao perfeccionismo e ao desejo de não ser repetitiva." Responde, antes de invocar um artista de outro género à laia de explicação, que o projecto era simplesmente difícil. "Brahms disse que - acho que foi Brahms - a composição é fácil. O que é difícil é ter de deitar fora grande parte do que escreves. E é verdade. Adoro andar com as palavras de trás para a frente, mesmo com as vírgulas. Às vezes, fico a pensar cerca de meia hora se devo usar esta ou aquela palavra. Supomos que estava a escrever um capítulo. Tudo saía muito bem. E então dava-me conta de que não deveria estar a contar a história pela perspectiva desta personagem. Corta-se. Começa-se tudo de novo. Temos que ser implacáveis."
Escrever do ponto de vista de uma criança apresenta uma série de desafios. "Por um lado", diz, "não se pretende que as crianças sejam demasiado adultas ou sofisticadas. Por outro lado, não se quer ceder ao sentimentalismo e fazer com que pareçam demasiado ingénuas."
O truque é criar a sensação de que as crianças formam uma tribo à parte. "Elas querem ter um esconderijo secreto, uma caixa escondida debaixo da cama. Querem escrever em código. A única maneira de as crianças poderem fazer o que querem é fazendo-o secretamente, enganando. Todas as crianças mentem. São obrigadas a fazê-lo. Elas não têm poder. Os adultos são para elas uma espécie de inimigo natural."
Tal como a sua heroína, Tartt cresceu deliciada com Arthur Conan Doyle e os seus contos com Sherlock Holmes e com os romances de Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling e Robert Louis Stevenson. Os livros de aventuras sobre rapazes eram emocionantes, mas enquanto os lia imaginava dar-lhes um toque diferente. "Quando o Jim Hawkins fazia algo na 'Ilha do Tesouro', pensava logo que não o teria feito dessa maneira." "Os rapazes, quando estão furiosos, agem com raiva ou impulsivamente. As raparigas são muito mais calmas e astuciosas. Elas podem aguentar rancores e pensar muito tempo sobre como se poderão vingar." Quando a astuciosa Harriet Cleve Dufresne está a ponderar a vingança, sabe que as cobras venenosas são a solução perfeita.
Ter escrito um "mega-bestseller" proporcionou a Tartt, claro está, a possibilidade de levar o tempo que precisar - acrescido do facto de ter a liberdade para partir numa direcção diferente da "The Secret History". Em vez de ser escrito na primeira pessoa e de se centrar numa comunidade estudantil fechada, optou por uma narração na terceira pessoa e por um quadro social alargado. Queria abrir a história a um conjunto de pontos de vista, que iam da excêntrica aristocracia das tias-avós de Harriet à escória da má sorte que vive em atrelados e que passa a vida num constante frenesim de entradas e saídas da cadeia.
Tartt compara o seu primeiro romance a "um concerto com instrumento para solista", enquanto "The Little Friend" é mais "uma sinfonia para orquestra completa", com "muitas vozes e muitos temas". A crítica nota que o livro inclui elementos de história de aventuras e de romance de costumes, ainda que nem sempre numa combinação perfeita. Michiko Kakutani, do "New York Times", por exemplo, chamou-lhe híbrido "pouco gracioso" e que não contribui nas suas diversas partes para "um todo convincente". Apesar das reservas, Daniel Mendelsohn do "New Yorker" deu o seu aplauso. "Como romance sobre os costumes do Sul", conclui, "é notavelmente bem escrito... e é também psicologicamente astuto."
O objectivo de Tartt era fundir as duas formas em algo de novo. "Gosto de romances que não sejam monótonos. Gosto quando mudam de cenário. Há uma grande semelhança com a música. Temos movimentos rápidos e lentos." E transporta então a analogia para o cinema. "É a grande lição hitchockiana." Cita as cenas de "Psycho" em movimento lento que provocam uma sensação de mal-estar. "Sabemos que ali se passa algo de muito mau, só que não sabemos bem o quê..."
Tartt não se importa nada que lhe chamem contadora de histórias antiquada. Acredita que a história tradicional pode ser infinitamente rica. "Os meus escritores favoritos conjugam um belo estilo com uma bela narração." Quando a futura romancista ainda andava na terceira classe, a avó materna lia-lhe um capítulo de Dickens todos os dias após as aulas. A um capítulo de "Oliver Twist" de Dickens seguia-se outro de aventuras da autoria de Nancy Drew. "Nancy Drew era suposto ser a recompensa", diz Tartt. Mas achava as aventuras da jovem detective "pouco interessantes, eram como um 'show' televisivo". A verdadeira emoção residia em Dickens. "Achava que aconteciam coisas tão horríveis ao Oliver! De noite não conseguia dormir preocupada com ele. Sentia-me devastada nos dias em que a minha avó tinha algum compromisso e não me podia ler histórias."
Lembra-se também do prazer que tinha com a leitura de "Dr. Jekyll e Mr. Hyde". Ao contrário das histórias de ficção de Nancy Drews, o suspense aqui era real, era parte integral de um mundo inteiramente imaginado. "Dr. Jekyll está ali sentado com Mr. Utterson, tomando um 'brandy' à frente da lareira", lembra-se. "Tudo se passa lentamente, o que faz com que tenhamos uma sensação horripilante quando vemos a sombra de Mr. Hyde descendo a rua. É a sensação do ritmo que eu aprecio, um facto muito presente nos romances do século XIX. Nada disso existe nos romances do século XX, mas é o que eu faço."
Após a surpresa que constituiu o seu primeiro romance, estaria Tartt à espera que desta vez os críticos estivessem de facas afiadas? "Na verdade, não costumo ler as críticas", afirma. "É o que Stephen King dizia e acho que é uma regra muito boa: não dês às pessoas o que elas querem. Dá-lhes antes o que tu queres. Acho que podemos dar em malucos se nos preocuparmos demasiado com as críticas. Penso que não devemos tentar agradar aos outros. Se alguém me dissesse para escrever um romance do agrado geral, não teria a mínima ideia como fazê-lo."
Exclusivo PÚBLICO/ "LA Times"/"Washington Post"
Tradução de Cristina Silva
This much I know
Donna Tartt, Author, 39, Stockholm
Sunday November 16, 2003
If you're travelling alone, as I often do, and you have a dog with you, France is a wonderful place to go.
I once turned up at a nice restaurant, and the maître d' looked at me and said, 'Une?' and then looked down, saw my dog, shook his head and tenderly said, 'Non, deux.' And took us to a romantic table for two.
I get very attached to coats because a coat is a comfort, you can curl up with it. I bought a beautiful cashmere coat about 10 years ago and I love it. It's really like my security blanket.
I try not to pay attention to publicity. When The Secret History had been published, I met Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at a party. I mentioned a gigantic Vanity Fair story about him which had appeared recently, and he said, 'Oh, I haven't seen it.' I thought this was the most incredible thing
I'd ever heard, and he said, 'I'll tell you why, kid. The good things don't help and the bad things still hurt.'
My job is really to write the book. I reserve for press the kind of horrible curiosity you have when you overhear your name and you know people are talking about you in the corner. Some people will go over and try to eavesdrop on that conversation. I'm not that kind of person. I would leave the room.
It's wonderful to live in a hotel, and to be involved in the life of a hotel. I lived on and off in the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York for several years. Sometimes at home, even now, I wake up in the morning and don't know where I am, and fumble around on the bedside table for a matchbook or something to tell me what hotel and what city I'm in.
Learning how to type does not make you a writer. It was one of the biggest disappointments of my life when I found I couldn't compose at a typewriter. You see so many movies in which pages fly out of a writer's machine and novels pile up next to them. I'm in my late 30s now and I'm still working in those messy little notebooks I had when I was six.
To be an artist of any sort, one has to be stubborn, to have a very strong inner compass. It's the hardest thing and no one can teach you. You have to know yourself.
I love anybody who makes me laugh. Humour will carry you through a great deal of the world's evil.
It's part of the personality of a writer to absorb the emotions of people around them whether they want
to or not. Sometimes, it's just too much, it's really overpowering. If I'm sitting next to someone at a restaurant who's angry and upset, I'll start to feel bad myself.
Reading is what makes me happiest.
I am very particular about my surroundings. When I think of poor Oscar Wilde, dying in Paris and saying, 'Either that wallpaper goes, or I do', sometimes I feel the same way.
New York is the only city in the world in which you have Wanderlust and never leave home.
I was a cheerleader because I was good at gymnastics and they didn't have gymnastics in my school. I was a little girl, too, so I was called a flyer, so it was kind of fun. But I didn't at all like the social aspect of it.
I do miss my dogs when I'm travelling, but I stop and speak to dogs - dogs often stop and speak to you.
Authors dress to either one of two extremes. There is the dandy, or there is Virginia Woolf who was famous for going about in rags, practically. Very nice clothes are not incompatible with the writer's profession, in a way that they are for a painter or a dancer.
I lose notebooks all the time, but I very much doubt that anyone who found one would realise it was one of mine. They look like the rubbishy little notebooks a child's homework might be in. I rampage through the house like Medea, looking for them. Almost always, they're under my chair or someplace, but I have lost one or two forever, and it's disturbing.
I try to be disciplined, but by nature, I'm not very.
I have never seen Sex and the City.
Donna Tartt's The Little Friend is published by Bloomsbury, £7.99.
Heaven on a hummingbird's wing
Donna Tartt on the abiding power of a childhood memory
Saturday October 2, 2004
Not long ago, my little godson came to stay with me for the first time: his first summer vacation, and also his first trip to the countryside. Though still an infant, not yet able to speak, his eyes were round and ringing with astonishment all weekend long. Everything at my house was shocking and utterly new: velvet sofa cushions, purple flowers, elderly pug (bigger than he was, a frightening but friendly lion). In the photographs from that weekend (swimming pool; absurd yellow kiddie float) his face is alight with violent wonder - an expression very similar to the dazed, incredulous joy that I remember on the faces of some sombre little hill-children in India at the watermelon sparklers I gave them. These were a racy treat of my American childhood - clear candies of a biting, gorgeous pink, deliciously sour, smooth and sparkling like jewels when you took them out of your mouth and held them up to the light after you'd sucked on them for a while. But though they are pretty enough to look at, their taste is the real stunner - an overpowering electric tang to make a grown-up's eyes water, but that children adore. As a child I craved these candies, was driven mad by them, saved my nickels and dimes for them - all the children on my school bus did - but there, in the high Himalayas, they were unheard of, pure magic: I might as well have been handing out rubies.
Of course, it's not at all remarkable that children are captivated by new things, because to children everything is new. But what is remarkable is how fleeting impressions of childhood delight can linger and change and vanish and re-appear unexpectedly over the years, winking like fireflies throughout the arduous and complicated darks of a lifetime. It has been remarked that a poet's most powerful, passionate metaphors - the ones that recur again and again, the ones that carry the deepest personal meaning - are fixed irrevocably in the mind before the age of 12. So, too, I think, for the rest of us. Someday, long after I am dead, my little godson may be an old man of 80 or 90 sitting in a deck chair in Miami Beach, inexplicably transfixed with a wordless pang of joy at a striped beach ball, at dazzling turquoise pool water - just as someday (I hope) a particular impossible shade of watermelon pink, glimpsed in passing, may perhaps strike an old lady in a Himalayan hill village as the very sweetness of youth.
Quite often there's a pattern to these haphazard and apparently random flashes of childhood memory - a pattern that doesn't emerge or make itself known until later in life. One particularly vivid memory that has stayed with me throughout my life, and will be with me until I die, is of the first time I saw a hummingbird. The incident was inconsequential enough; I was about four years old, and had accompanied my beloved great-grandmother (then in her late 70s) to a garden party given for a distant relative: a young bride-to-be. It was springtime; the azaleas were in spectacular bloom; the astonishing little ruby-throated creature flew right in front of me - down at my eye level, practically in front of my face - and hovered there for some moments before it buzzed forward, then backward, then flew away across the green lawn for ever.
That was all. It can have lasted no more than 10 seconds, yet this tiny incident has left a much more intense and lasting impression on me than many of the great landmark events of my childhood. For many years, I wondered exactly why I remembered this specific incident so vividly and not some thing else, something more powerful. Why the hummingbird? What was it trying to tell me? Why had this memory, and not some other, struck me so forcefully in the first place; why does it come back to me so persistently, in memory and in dream?
Only now - at mid-life, in my 40th year - am I starting to realise what the hummingbird means, and why, at unexpected moments, it returns to me still. It is a premonition of heaven, and of death. My great-grandmother (who was leaning beside me, holding my hand, as the hummingbird paused in mid-air before me) did not have long to live. Nor did the bride herself - lovely laughing Ginger, who died young, of cancer. I couldn't have understood it then, and scarcely understand it now, but my entire subsequent impressions of death, and beauty, and mutability, and the brevity of life itself are somehow crystallised perfectly in those few moments, when the tiny iridescent hummingbird darted before my face, hovered briefly, then flew away. All I know of the sublime is somehow encapsulated and encoded in that instant: flowers everywhere, white-gloved ladies in pastel dresses. Then beautiful Ginger, in an apple-green dress, kneeling to say hello.
·Donna Tartt 2004. Taken from When We Were Young: An Anthology of Childhood compiled and illustrated by John Burningham, with donations going to Unicef and published by Bloomsbury on October 18, at £14.99
For the rest of her life, Charlotte Cleve would blame herself for her son's death because she had decided to have the Mother's Day dinner at six in the evening instead of noon, after church, which is when the Cleves usually had it. Dissatisfaction had been expressed by the elder Cleves at the new arrangement; and while this mainly had to do with suspicion of innovation, on principle, Charlotte felt that she should have paid attention to the undercurrent of grumbling, that it had been a slight but ominous warning of what was to come; a warning which, though obscure even in hindsight, was perhaps as good as any we can ever hope to receive in this life.
Though the Cleves loved to recount among themselves even the minor events of their family history—repeating word for word, with stylized narrative and rhetorical interruptions, entire deathbed scenes, or marriage proposals that had occurred a hundred years before—the events of this terrible Mother's Day were never discussed. They were not discussed even in covert groups of two, brought together by a long car trip or by insomnia in a late-night kitchen; and this was unusual, because these family discussions were how the Cleves made sense of the world. Even the cruelest and most random disasters—the death, by fire, of one of Charlotte's infant cousins; the hunting accident in which Charlotte's uncle had died while she was still in grammar school—were constantly rehearsed among them, her grandmother's gentle voice and her mother's stern one merging harmoniously with her grandfather's baritone and the babble of her aunts, and certain ornamental bits, improvised by daring soloists, eagerly seized upon and elaborated by the chorus, until finally, by group effort, they arrived together at a single song; a song which was then memorized, and sung by the entire company again and again, which slowly eroded memory and came to take the place of truth: the angry fireman, failing in his efforts to resuscitate the tiny body, transmuted sweetly into a weeping one; the moping bird dog, puzzled for several weeks by her master's death, recast as the grief-stricken Queenie of family legend, who searched relentlessly for her beloved throughout the house and howled, inconsolable, in her pen all night; who barked in joyous welcome whenever the dear ghost approached in the yard, a ghost that only she could perceive. "Dogs can see things that we can't," Charlotte's aunt Tat always intoned, on cue, at the proper moment in the story. She was something of a mystic and the ghost was her innovation.
But Robin: their dear little Robs. More than ten years later, his death remained an agony; there was no glossing any detail; its horror was not subject to repair or permutation by any of the narrative devices that the Cleves knew. And—since this willful amnesia had kept Robin's death from being translated into that sweet old family vernacular which smoothed even the bitterest mysteries into comfortable, comprehensible form—the memory of that day's events had a chaotic, fragmented quality, bright mirrorshards of nightmare which flared at the smell of wisteria, the creaking of a clothes-line, a certain stormy cast of spring light.
Sometimes these vivid flashes of memory seemed like pieces of a bad dream, as if none of it had ever happened. Yet in many ways it seemed the only real thing that had happened in Charlotte's life.
The only narrative she could impose upon this jumble of images was the narrative of ritual, changeless since she was a child: the framework of the family gathering. But even this was little help. Procedures had been scorned that year, household rules ignored. Everything, in retrospect, was a signpost pointing to disaster. The dinner had not been at her grandfather's house, as it usually was, but at hers. Corsages of cymbidium orchid instead of the usual rosebuds. Chicken croquettes—which everyone liked, Ida Rhew made them well, the Cleves ate them for birthday suppers and on Christmas Eve—but they'd never had them before on a Mother's Day; had never had anything, as far as anyone could remember, except snap peas, corn pudding, and ham.
Stormy, luminous spring evening; low, smudged clouds and golden light, dandelions and onion-flowers spangling the lawn. The air smelled fresh and tight, like rain. Laughter and talk within the house, the querulous voice of Charlotte's old aunt Libby rising high and plaintive for a moment: "Why, I never did any such thing, Adelaide, I never did any such thing in the world!" All the Cleves loved to tease Aunt Libby. She was a spinster, afraid of everything, of dogs and thunderstorms and fruitcakes made with rum, of bees, Negro men, the police. A fast wind jangled the clothesline and blew the tall weeds flat in the empty lot across the street. The screen door slammed shut. Robin ran outside, shrieking with laughter at a joke his grandmother had told him (Why was the letter damp? Because it had postage due), jumping down the steps two at a time.
There should have been, at the very least, someone outside watching the baby. Harriet was less than a year old then, a heavy, somber infant with a headful of black hair who never cried. She was on the front walk, strapped in her portable swing that went back and forth if you wound it up. Her sister Allison, who was four, played quietly with Robin's cat, Weenie, on the steps. Unlike Robin—who, at that age, had talked incessantly and hilariously in a gravelly little voice, tumbling to the ground with merriment at his own jokes—Allison was shy and skittish, and cried when anyone tried to teach her the ABCs; and the children's grandmother (who had no patience for such behavior) paid little attention to her.
Aunt Tat had been outside early on, playing with the baby. Charlotte herself, running back and forth between kitchen and dining room, had stuck her head out a couple of times—but she hadn't kept a very close watch because Ida Rhew, the housekeeper (who had decided to go ahead and get a start on her Monday washing) was in and out of the house, hanging clothes on the line. Charlotte had been falsely soothed by this, for on normal washday, Monday, Ida was within constant earshot—whether in the yard or at the washing machine on the back porch—so that it was perfectly safe to leave even the littlest ones outside. But Ida was harried that day, fatally harried, with company to tend to and a stove to watch as well as the baby; and she was in a foul temper because usually she got to go home at one o'clock on Sundays and not only was her husband, Charley T., having to get his own dinner, but she, Ida Rhew, was missing church. She had insisted on bringing the radio into the kitchen so she could at least listen to the gospel show from Clarksdale. Sullenly she moved around the kitchen in her black dress uniform with the white apron, the volume of the gospel program turned obstinately loud, pouring iced tea into tall glasses as the clean shirts out on the clothesline flailed and twisted and threw up their arms in despair at the coming rain.
Robin's grandmother had been out on the porch too, at some point; that much was certain, because she had taken a snapshot. There were not many men in the Cleve family and headstrong, masculine activities such as tree pruning, household repair, chauffeuring the elderly to grocery and church, had for the most part fallen to her. She did this cheerfully, with a brisk confidence that was the wonder of her timid sisters. None of them could even drive a car; and poor Aunt Libby was so afraid of appliances and mechanical apparatus of all sorts that she wept at the prospect of lighting a gas heater or changing a light bulb. Though they were intrigued by the camera, they were also wary of it, and they admired their sister's breezy daring in handling this manly contraption that had to be loaded and aimed and shot like a gun. "Look at Edith," they would say, watching her wind the film or adjust the focus with swift professionalism. "There's nothing Edith can't do."
wisdom had it that Edith, despite her dazzling and varied fields of competence,
enjoyed no great gift with children. She was proud and impatient, and her manner
did not encourage warmth; Charlotte, her only child, always ran to her aunts
(Libby, particularly) for comfort, affection, reassurance. And though Harriet,
the baby, had yet to show little in the way of preference for anyone, Allison
was terrified by her grandmother's brisk efforts to prod her out of silence, and
cried when she was taken to her house to stay. But, oh, how Charlotte's mother
had loved Robin, and how he had loved her right back. She—a dignified,
middle-aged lady—played catch with him in the front yard, and caught him snakes
and spiders in her garden to play with; taught him funny songs she'd learned
from the soldiers when she was a nurse in World War II: I knew a girl named
Who had a wooden leg which he sang right along with her in his hoarse, sweet little voice.
EdieEdieEdieEdieEdie! Even her father and her sisters called her Edith, but Edie was the name he'd given her when he was barely old enough to talk, running madcap across the lawn, screaming with delight. Once, when Robin was about four, he had called her, in all seriousness, old girl. "Poor old girl," he'd said, grave as an owl, patting her forehead with his small, freckled hand. Charlotte would never have dreamed of being so familiar with her sharp, businesslike mother, certainly not when she was lying down in her bedroom with a headache, but the incident amused Edie greatly and now it had become one of her favorite stories. Her hair was gray by the time he was born, but when she was young it had been as bright-penny red as Robin's own: For Robin Redbreast or My Own Red Robin, she wrote on the tags to his birthday and Christmas gifts. With love from your poor old girl.
EdieEdieEdieEdieEdie! He was nine years old, but it was a family joke now, his traditional greeting, his love song to her; and he sang it out across the yard just as he always did, as she stepped out upon the porch on that last afternoon she ever saw him.
"Come give the old girl a kiss," she called to him. But though he usually liked having his picture made, sometimes he was skittish about it—came out a red-headed blur, sharp elbows and kneecaps scrambling to get away—and when he saw the camera around Edie's neck he was off and hiccuping with laughter.
"Come back to me, you scamp!" she called, and then, on impulse, she'd raised the camera and snapped it at him anyway. It was the last picture that they had of him. Out of focus. Flat expanse of green cut at a slight diagonal, with a white rail and the heaving gloss of a gardenia bush sharp in the foreground at the edge of the porch. Murky, storm-damp sky, shifting liquescence of indigo and slate, boiling clouds rayed with spokes of light. In the corner of the frame a blurred shadow of Robin, his back to the viewer, ran out across the hazy lawn to meet his death, which stood waiting for him—almost visible—in the dark place beneath the tupelo tree.
Days later, lying in the shuttered room, a thought had flickered across Charlotte's mind beneath a mist of pills. Whenever Robin was going anywhere—to school, to a friend's house, to spend the afternoon with Edie—it had always been important to him to say goodbye, in tender and frequently quite prolonged and ceremonious ways. She had a thousand memories of little notes he'd written, kisses blown from windows, his small hand chattering up and down at her from the backseats of departing cars: goodbye! goodbye! When he was a baby, he'd learned bye-bye long before hello; it was his way of greeting people as well as leaving them. It seemed particularly cruel to Charlotte that there had been no goodbye this time. She had been so distracted that she had no very clear recollection of the last words she'd exchanged with Robin, or even of the last time she'd seen him, when what she needed was something concrete, some small final memory to slip its hand in hers and accompany her—sightless now, stumbling—through this sudden desert of existence which stretched before her from the present moment until the end of life. Half-mad with pain and sleeplessness, she'd babbled on and on to Libby (it was Aunt Libby who had got her through that time, Libby with her cool cloths and her aspics, Libby who had stayed awake with her all night for nights and nights, Libby who had never left her side, Libby who had saved her); for neither her husband nor anyone else was able to offer her the flimsiest solace; and though her own mother (who to outsiders appeared to be "taking things well") was unchanged in her habits and her appearance, still going bravely about the business of the day, Edie would never be the same again. Grief had turned her into stone. It was a terrible thing to see. "Get out of that bed, Charlotte!" she would bark, throwing open the shutters; "here, have some coffee, brush your hair, you can't lie around forever like this"; and even innocent old Libby shuddered sometimes at the brilliant coldness of Edie's gaze as she turned from the window to regard her daughter lying still in the dark bedroom: ferocious, pitiless as Arcturus.
"Life goes on." It was one of Edie's favorite sayings. It was a lie. These were the days when Charlotte still woke in a drugged delirium to get her dead son up for school, when she started from bed five and six times a night calling his name. And sometimes, for a moment or two, she believed that Robin was upstairs and it was all a bad dream. But when her eyes adjusted to the dark, and the hideous despairing litter (tissues, pill bottles, dead flower petals) strewn across the bed table, she began to sob again—though she had sobbed until her ribcage ached—because Robin wasn't upstairs or any place he'd ever come back from again.
He'd stuck cards in the spokes of his bicycle. Though she hadn't realized it when he was alive, it was by their rattle that she'd kept track of his comings and goings. Some child in the neighborhood had a bicycle that sounded exactly like it and every time she heard it in the distance her heart vaulted up for a soaring, incredulous, gorgeously cruel moment.
Had he called for her? To think about his last moments was soul-destroying and yet she could think of nothing else. How long? Had he suffered? All day long she stared at the bedroom ceiling until the shadows slid across it, and then she lay awake and stared at the glow of the luminescent clock-dial in the darkness.
"You're not doing anybody in the world any good lying in the bed crying all day," said Edie briskly. "You'd feel a lot better if you put on some clothes and went and had your hair fixed."
In dreams he was evasive and
distant, withholding something. She longed for some word from him but he never
met her eyes, never spoke. Libby, in the worst days, had murmured something to
her over and over again, something
that she hadn't understood. We were never meant to have him, darling. He wasn't ours to keep. We were lucky he was with us for as long as he was.
And this was the thought that came to Charlotte, through a narcotic fog, that hot morning in the shuttered room. That what Libby had told her was the truth. And that, in some strange way or other, ever since he was just a baby, Robin had been trying to say goodbye to her all his life.
Edie was the last person to see him. No one was too clear after that. As her family talked in the living room—longer silences now, everyone glancing around pleasantly, waiting for the call to go to table—Charlotte was on her hands and knees rummaging through the dining-room buffet for her good linen napkins (she'd come in to find the table set with everyday cotton; Ida—typically—claimed never to have heard of the others, said the checked picnic napkins were the only ones she could find). Charlotte had just found the good napkins, and was about to call out to Ida (see? right where I said they were) when she was struck by the conviction that something was wrong.
The baby. It was her first instinct. She jumped up, letting the napkins fall on the rug, and ran out onto the porch.
But Harriet was fine. Still strapped in her swing, she stared at her mother with big grave eyes. Allison sat on the sidewalk, thumb in mouth. She was rocking back and forth, making a wasplike, humming sound—unharmed, apparently, but Charlotte saw that she'd been crying.
What's the matter? said Charlotte. Did you hurt yourself?
But Allison, thumb still in mouth, shook her head no.
From the corner of her eye, Charlotte saw a flash of movement at the yard's edge—Robin? But when she looked up, nobody was there.
Are you sure? she said to Allison. Did the kitty scratch you?
Allison shook her head no. Charlotte knelt and checked her over quickly; no bumps, no bruises. The cat had disappeared.
Still uneasy, Charlotte kissed Allison on the forehead and led her into the house ("Why don't you go see what Ida's doing in the kitchen, honey?") and then went back out for the baby. She had felt these dreamlike flashes of panic before, usually in the middle of the night and always when a child was less than six months old, bolting upright from a sound sleep to rush to the crib. But Allison wasn't hurt, and the baby was fine.... She went into the living room and deposited Harriet with her aunt Adelaide, picked up the napkins on the dining-room rug, and—still half-sleepwalking, she didn't know why—trailed into the kitchen to get the baby's jar of apricots.
Her husband, Dix, had said not to wait supper. He was out duck-hunting. That was fine. When Dix wasn't at the bank, he was usually out hunting or over at his mother's house. She pushed open the kitchen doors and dragged a stool over to get the baby's apricots from the cabinet. Ida Rhew was bending low, pulling a pan of rolls from the oven. God, sang a cracking Negro voice from the transistor radio. God don't never change.
That gospel program. It was something that haunted Charlotte, though she'd never mentioned it to anyone. If Ida hadn't had that racket turned up so loud they might have heard what was going on in the yard, might have known that something was wrong. But then (tossing in her bed at night, trying restlessly to trace events to a possible First Cause) it was she who had made pious Ida work on Sunday in the first place. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Jehovah in the Old Testament was always smiting people down for far less.
These rolls is nearly done, Ida Rhew said, stooping to the oven again.
Ida, I'll get those. I think it's about to rain. Why don't you bring the clothes in and call Robin to supper.
When Ida—grouchy and stiff—creaked back in with an armload of white shirts, she said: He won't come.
You tell him to get in here this minute.
I don't know where he is. I done called half a dozen times.
Maybe he's across the street.
Ida dropped the shirts in the ironing basket. The screen door banged shut. Robin, Charlotte heard her yell. You come on, or I'll switch your legs.
And then, again: Robin!
But Robin didn't come.
Oh, for Heaven's sake, said Charlotte, drying her hands on a kitchen towel, and went out into the yard.
Once she was there she realized, with a slight unease that was more irritation than anything else, that she had no idea where to look. His bicycle was leaning against the porch. He knew not to wander off so close to dinnertime, especially when they had company.
Robin! she called. Was he hiding? No children his age lived in the neighborhood, and though every now and then unkempt children—black and white—wandered up from the river to the wide, oak-shaded sidewalks of George Street, she didn't see any of them now. Ida forbade him to play with them, though sometimes he did anyway. The smallest ones were pitiful, with their scabbed knees and dirty feet; though Ida Rhew shooed them roughly from the yard, Charlotte, in tender-hearted moods, sometimes gave them quarters or glasses of lemonade. But when they grew older—thirteen or fourteen—she was glad to retreat into the house and allow Ida to be as fierce as she liked in chasing them away. They shot BB guns at dogs, stole things from people's porches, used bad language, and ran the streets till all hours of the night.
Ida said: Some of them trashy little boys was running down the street a while ago.
When Ida said trashy, she meant white. Ida hated the poor white children and blamed them with unilateral ferocity for all yard mishaps, even those with which Charlotte was certain they could have had nothing possibly to do.
Was Robin with them? said Charlotte.
Where are they now?
I run them off.
Yunder towards the depot.
Old Mrs. Fountain from next door, in her white cardigan and harlequin glasses, had come out into her yard to see what was happening. Close behind was her decrepit poodle, Mickey, with whom she shared a comical resemblance: sharp nose, stiff gray curls, suspicious thrust of chin.
Well, she called gaily. Yall having a big party over there?
Just the family, Charlotte called back, scanning the darkening horizon behind Natchez Street where the train tracks stretched flat in the distance. She should have invited Mrs. Fountain to dinner. Mrs. Fountain was a widow, and her only child had died in the Korean War, but she was a complainer and a vicious busybody.Mr. Fountain, who ran a dry-cleaning business, had died fairly young, and people joked that she had talked him into the ground.
What's wrong? Mrs. Fountain said.
You haven't seen Robin, have you?
No. I've been upstairs cleaning out this attic all afternoon. I know I look like a great big mess. See all this trash I hauled out? I know the garbage man doesn't come until Tuesday and I hate to just leave it out on the street like this but I dont know what else to do. Where'd Robin run off to? Can't you find him?
I'm sure he didn't go far, said Charlotte, stepping out on the sidewalk to peer down the street. But it's suppertime.
It's fixin to thunder, said Ida Rhew, gazing up at the sky.
You don't reckon he fell in the fishpond, do you? Mrs. Fountain said anxiously. I always was afraid that one of those babies was going to fall in there.
That fishpond isn't a foot deep, Charlotte said, but all the same she turned and headed toward the back yard.
Edie had come out onto the porch. Anything the matter? she said.
He's not in the back, yelled Ida Rhew. I looked already.
As Charlotte went past the open kitchen window on the side of the house, she could still hear Ida's gospel program:
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling Calling for you and for me See, by the portals he's waiting and watching...
The back yard was deserted. The door of the tool shed stood ajar: empty. A mucid sheet of green scum floated undisturbed over the goldfish pool. As Charlotte glanced up, a ravelled wire of lightning flashed in the black clouds.
It was Mrs. Fountain who saw him first. The scream froze Charlotte in her tracks. She turned and ran back, quick, quick, not quick enough—dry thunder rumbling in the distance, everything strangely lit beneath the stormy sky and the ground pitching up at her as the heels of her shoes sank in the muddy earth, as the choir still sang somewhere and a strong sudden wind, cool with the coming rain, swept through the oaks overhead with a sound like giant wings and the lawn rearing up all green and bilious and heaving about her like the sea, as she stumbled blind and terrified toward what she knew—for it was all there, everything, in Mrs. Fountain's cry—would be the very worst.
Where had Ida been when she got there? Where was Edie? All she remembered was Mrs. Fountain, a hand with a crumpled Kleenex pressed tight to her mouth and her eyes rolling and wild behind the pearly glasses; Mrs. Fountain, and the poodle barking, and—ringing from nowhere, and somewhere, and everywhere at once—the rich, unearthly vibrato of Edie's screams.
He was hanging by the neck from a piece of rope, slung over a low branch of the black-tupelo that stood near the overgrown privet hedge between Charlotte's house and Mrs. Fountain's; and he was dead. The toes of his limp tennis shoes dangled six inches above the grass. The cat, Weenie, was sprawled barrel-legged on his stomach atop a branch, batting, with a deft, feinting paw, at Robin's copper-red hair, which ruffled and glinted in the breeze and which was the only thing about him that was the right color any more.Come home, sang the radio choir, melodiously:
Ye who are weary come home
Black smoke pouring out the kitchen window. The chicken croquettes had gone up on the stove. They had been a family favorite but after that day no one was ever able to touch them again. Harriet, the baby, was neither pretty nor sweet. Harriet was smart. From the time she was old enough to talk, Harriet had been a slightly distressing presence in the Cleve household. Fierce on the playground, rude to company, she argued with Edie and checked out library books about Genghis Khan and gave her mother headaches. She was twelve years old and in the seventh grade. Though she was an A student, the teachers had never known how to handle her. Sometimes they telephoned her mother, or Edie—who, as anyone who knew anything about the Cleves was aware, was the one you wanted to talk to; she was both field marshal and autocrat, the person of greatest power in the family and the person most likely to act. But Edie herself was uncertain how to deal with Harriet. Harriet was not disobedient, exactly, or unruly, but she was haughty, and somehow managed to irritate nearly every adult with whom she came in contact. Harriet had none of her sister's dreamy fragility. She was sturdily built, like a small badger, with round cheeks, a sharp nose, black hair bobbed short, a thin, determined little mouth. She spoke briskly, in a reedy, high-pitched voice that for a Mississippi child was oddly clipped, so that strangers often asked where on earth she had picked up that Yankee accent. Her gaze was pale, penetrating, and not unlike Edie's. The resemblance between her and her grandmother was pointed, and did not go unremarked; but the grandmother's quick, fierce-eyed beauty was in the grandchild merely fierce, and a trifle unsettling. Chester, the yard man, likened them in private to hawk and baby chickenhawk. To Chester, and to Ida Rhew, Harriet was a source of exasperation and amusement. From the time she had first learned to talk, she had tagged along behind them as they went about their work, interrogating them at every step. How much money did Ida make? Did Chester know how to say the Lord's Prayer? Would he say it for her? She also amused them by stirring up trouble among the generally peaceful Cleves. More than once, she had been the cause of rifts very nearly grievous: telling Adelaide that neither Edie nor Tat ever kept the pillowcases she embroidered for them, but wrapped them up to give to other people; informing Libby that her dill pickles—far from being the culinary favorite she believed them—were inedible, and that the demand for them from neighbors and family was due to their strange efficacy as a herbicide. "Do you know that bald spot in the yard?" Harriet said. "Out by the back porch? Tatty threw some of your pickles there six years ago, and nothing has grown there since." Harriet was all for the idea of bottling the pickles and selling them as weed killer. Libby would become a millionaire.
Though the aunts loved Harriet, she was not as affectionate a child as her sister, and her pridefulness troubled them. She was too forthright. She did not at all understand reticence or diplomacy, and in this she resembled Edie more than Edie realized. In vain, the aunts tried to teach her to be polite. "But don't you understand, darling," said Tat, "that if you don't like fruitcake, it's better to eat it anyway instead of hurting your hostess's feelings?"
"But I don't like fruitcake."
"I know you don't, Harriet. That's why I used that example."
"But fruitcake is horrible. I don't know anybody that likes it. And if I tell her I like it she's just going to keep on giving it to me."
"Yes, dear, but that's not the point. The point is, if somebody has gone to the trouble to cook you something, it's good manners to eat it even if you don't want it."
"The Bible says not to lie."
"That's different. This is a white lie. The Bible's talking about another kind of lie."
"The Bible doesn't say black or white lies. It just says lies."
"Believe me, Harriet. It's true, Jesus tells us not to lie, but that doesn't mean we have to be rude to our hostess."
"Jesus doesn't say anything about our hostess. He says that lying is a sin. He says that the Devil is a liar and the prince of lies."
"But Jesus says Love Thy Neighbor, doesn't He?" said Libby, inspired, taking over for the now speechless Tat. "Doesn't that mean your hostess? Your hostess is your neighbor, too."
"That's right," said Tat gladly. "Not," she hastened, "that anybody is trying to say your hostess necessarily lives next door to you. All Love Thy Neighbor means is that you should eat what you're offered and be gracious about it."
"I don't see why loving my neighbor means telling him I love fruitcake. When I don't."