Monday, July 7, 2008

The Little Friend


I finished this in North Dakota of all places, too bad not in Mississippi, but I finally finished it nonetheless. I've been reading it since May, and now that I finished it, I can try and get my thoughts down.

I liked it. That's for sure. I loved the sheer muscular quality to the prose. Tartt, who's only other novel is The Secret History published ten years prior, has an unmistakable confidence in every sentence, and it exudes without arrogance. At first, I was a little bored by the languid pace of the novel, as Harriet, the main character, moves slowly around solving the murder of her elder brother in rural Mississippi. Once I understood what was happening, that Tartt was carefully crafting a comment on children's adventure stories, I was hooked. This isn't a novel about children solving mysteries... far from it. This is a novel about children and stories.

Let me spoil the novel for you. Years before, Harriet's brother Robin was mysteriously murdered and with no clues, leads or suspects, the police gave up the investigation and moved on with their lives, unlike Harriet's entire family, her spacey grieving mother, her adulterous and never-present father, her sleeping and shy sister, and her pantheon of mothering figures in the form of a grandmother and numerous great-aunts. Inspired by Captain Scott and Ivan Hoe and whoever else Harriet is reading, she sets out, with the help of her friend, Hely, to solve the murder. Their primary suspect is Danny Ratliff, a former schoolmate of Robin and now speed addict, and brother to Farish, the local drug dealer.

Things spin out of control as the naive children get involved in the darkness of the drug dealing and obviously dysfunctional Ratliff family, until it reaches a climax in which Harriet may or may not have drowned Danny (who has just murdered Farish) in a gigantic obelisk-like water tower. Recuperating in the hospital, Harriet has Hely dispose of the gun she stole from her father which did not kill or shoot anybody, which implicates her in the murder of Farish and the disappearance of Danny. When she tells Hely to get rid of the gun, she then implicates Hely in the matter - and Hely is far from the most trustworthy person in the world. Unable to keep a secret, Hely reveals what he thinks has happened to classmates and to his brother Pemberton (the boy casually dating Harriet's sister).

In the novel's final pages, Harriet finds out Danny is alive and she's not in trouble, but she devises a story to tell Hely anyway, to either impress him or keep him as her friend. At the same time, Hely reveals to Pemberton what he thinks has happened (because Harriet never told him the full story) and Pemberton laughs it off as a story that Hely is inventing.

I spoil the novel for a specific reason. It's important to note that both Hely and Harriet, at the end of the novel, are figuring out ways to tell stories to people, for the story they craft is far more important than the real story, which is that Danny is most certainly innocent of Robin's murder and that the true murderer is never revealed to the audience or to Harriet. Since the stories of what they read informed them of the story that we read, the story that they make is more important than the real story that we want to know.

Again, I find myself reading a story about stories and how they shape people. "A word after a word after a word is power" said Margaret Atwood, and it's never more apparent than in this novel. Now, I'm not a professor of literature, and I might be interpreting this novel incorrectly, but that's what I took from this. It's a story about stories and it was damn good.

I relish reading The Secret History now and I wait anxiously for her next novel. Hopefully she isn't like Gaddis and puts one out faster.

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