The Little Friend is the story of a 12-year-old girl in a Mississippi town, who has taken it upon herself to solve the mystery of his brother Robin’s death 12 years ago, when she was still a baby. She finds little to occupy herself with in the family home, and she’s too clever to sit at home all day. In many ways, the novel is the story of the whole family, or even the town as it’s not so much plot driven; descriptions of life among extended family members, neighbours, friends and acquaintances take up considerable space in the narration. For example:
“There was a forced note about their friendliness when they ran into Harriet’s mother at church, the husbands overly hearty, a sort of shrieking bright vivacity in the women’s voices, and none of them ever quite looked Harriet’s mother in the eye. Ginger and the other girls on the school bus treated Allison in a similar fashion: bright chatty voices, but eyes averted, as if Allison carried an infection they might catch” (162).
The characters are full of themselves and as such, the multiplicity of narrative perspectives, inflected by age and familial role, makes the book an amusing read. And the vocabulary: such a wealth of adjectives, and verbs… I feel that reading 200 pages from the novel already transferred chunks of my passive vocabulary into active.
I took an immediate liking to the main characters. I imagine Harriet, the protagonist, to be the American version of our 6th floor neighbour’s daughter. Admittedly, I find her intensely irritating when she lunges into our living room uninvited, ready to tamper with anything she sets her eyes on. She exudes this buzzing vibe that I am perhaps a little too old for. Harriet is cooler than her, probably because she’s a little older. Edie, Harriet’s grandmother, reminds me of a friend’s grandmother. She is also intelligent, vivacious and proactive, and happens to have the same name.
Descriptions are something I like about the book, but when they’re so detailed, and the same in-depth level is maintained throughout the book, they become a bit superfluous. My reader’s wisdom tells me that when an author zooms into a particular scene, offering minute details of action or thought, that particular section should either contain some significant clue for the resolution of the plot or it should be immediately followed by an element of surprise. But we rarely zoom out in this novel, so I feel that the close-up lingers on, leaving my expectations as a reader unfulfilled. Take this example:
“Danny made his bed, tight as a drum, emptied the ashtray and washed it out in the sink, threw away the Coke can and the remnants of the doughnut. On the card table was a half-worked jigsaw puzzle (pallid nature scene, winter trees and waterfall) which had been his entertainment for many a speedy night. Should he work on that for a while? Yes: the puzzle. But then his attention was arrested by the electrical-cord situation. Electrical cords were tangled around the fan, climbing up the walls, running all over the room. Clock radio, television, toaster, the whole bit. He batted a fly from around his head. Maybe he should take care of the cords – organize them a bit […] He popped his neck, tugges on his jeans and stepped outside. He found his brother Farish reclining in an aluminum lounge chair in front of their grandmother’s mobile home, scraping dirt from beneath his fingernails with a pocketknife. About him were strewn various cast-off distractions: a whetstone; a screwdriver and a partially dis-assembled transistor radio; a paperback book with a swastika on the cover. In the dirt amongst all this sat their youngest brother, Curtis, with his stumpy legs splayed out in a V in front of him, cuddling a dirty wet kitten to his cheek and humming (181-182).”
Danny, Farish and Curtis are side characters, and we get to learn about every minute of their lives. This slows down the pace, which, coupled with the prolonged sense of suspense makes the book a tough read. And there are 555 pages… I’m almost halfway through and I don’t even know if the action has started yet, I mean, it feels like the author has taken forever setting the scene. The amount of text I have read since the beginning would make an entire novel. I am not an author, but I somehow feel that Donna Tartt could pare this down to a great 300-page novel and pull out several short stories from it with all those vivid descriptions.
So, certainly a well-crafted book, and has a playfulness to it, but all the minutia weigh it down.