The Little Friend, Donna Tartt, book review
Cover photo credit: freedombooksflowers.blogspot.co.uk/

If you are someone who reads thrillers to actually find out what happens at the end, then don’t read The Little Friend.

I don’t really know what I expected from The Little Friend. I suppose I assumed it would be like every other mystery/thriller about a child who is killed: a lot of suspects, a few red-herrings, and then some sort of major twist in which the killer is revealed in a dramatic movie-style with fire and explosions.

Okay, maybe I got a bit carried away there. But The Little Friend is not what I was expecting. I both enjoyed it, and loathed it at the same time. I’ve never had such mixed opinions about a book before.

If I’m not enjoying a book, I’ll put it down, forget about it and move on. But with this one I just couldn’t. It took me 7 weeks to read every word, and I was disliking it, but also wanted to reach the end. This has never happened to me before.

Blurb

The Little Friend book front coverTwelve-year-old Harriet is doing her best to grow up, which is not easy as her mother is permanently on medication, her father has silently moved to another city, and her serene sister rarely notices anything. All of them are still suffering from the shocking and mysterious death of her brother Robin twelve years earlier, and it seems to Harriet that the family may never recover. So, inspired by Captain Scott, Houdini, and Robert Louis Stevenson, she sets out with her only friend Hely to find Robin’s murderer and punish him. But what starts out as a child’s game soon becomes a dark and dangerous journey into the menacing underworld of a small Mississippi town.

Review

The prologue opens on Mother’s Day, where the Cleve’s are having a small party. 9-year-old Robin is playing in the garden, with his younger sisters, Allison, 4, and Harriet, 1. Everyone is called in for dinner, but Robin doesn’t come. He is found hanging from a tree at the bottom of the garden, and this moment is the beginning of a journey for the remaining living characters.

But the journey is different to anything I could have imagined it to be. Harriet becomes obsessed with finding Robin’s killer. So much so, that she puts 2 and 2 together and makes 50 without even thinking that she could be wrong, or that it doesn’t make sense.

Though the reader has an inkling she has it all wrong, we’re never sure until right at the end of the novel. There are hints throughout, and it is very obvious to us in the last 100 pages. But not to Harriet. She’s like a dog with a bone, chasing it round and round, so blinded by this one bone that she doesn’t notice the much larger pile of bones sat 10 feet away from her.

She is so obsessed that it must be this one person. Nothing else matters, and she’s planning to kill him in a multitude of horrific ways, but truly believing that she can do it. I struggled to understand this in my reading of The Little Friend. She’s only twelve, and yet has the brain of a psychopath. She doesn’t fear anything, she doesn’t think about the repercussions of what she is planning on doing it. It’s just….bizarre.

In one horrific scene that will stay embedded in my mind for a long time, Harriet attempts to rescue a blackbird stuck in tar on the road:

“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.”

She holds the bird, until it dies in her hands. There is a moment, too, where she pushes a large poisonous Cobra off a bridge and into the open sunroof of a car. Is this normal child’s behaviour? Absolutely not.

Themes

The themes throughout The Little Friend centre around race and class. The novel is set in Mississippi in the 1970s. It’s clear that the small, sleepy town hasn’t quite caught up with the modern views of the rest of the world. Harriet and her sister have a black maid, Ida, who holds a lot of hatred for white people. Though she loves her ‘white family’, an incident involving a fire at her local church has left her badly scarred, mentally and physically.

What’s most poignant, and has stood out to me even after finishing the book, is a comment made by a lower-class drug dealer. Farish lives in a trailer with his Grandma, Gum, and his brothers. He makes some comment about how blacks look down on the ‘trailer-trash’ as if they’re better than them because they’re richer. But Farish believes, because they’re white, that no matter how much money they have, they will always come above black people in the race hierarchy.

The ending is ambiguous, and annoyed me at the same time that I felt relief it was over. 7 weeks of reading, and still no clearer about who murdered Robin than we were at the start.

Tartt herself commented on this in an interview:

I didn’t want to tie things up too neatly. I don’t think it’s really the business of a writer today, to tie up narrative too neatly and deliver it in a box. And to lead the killer away in handcuffs.

Well, I still would have quite liked the killer to be led away in handcuffs rather than waiting 555 pages to reveal…..nothing.

Many have taken to guessing who the killer might be, picking up small, minor details in the text. But I’m still not convinced by many of the theories.

Questions that I still have upon finishing

Who is ‘The Little Friend’?
Who killed Robin Cleve?
What does Allison dream about that she won’t tell Harriet?

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Then She Was Gone, Lisa Jewell