Published: 2002 by Bloomsbury
My copy: Bought secondhand
Memorable quote: “She’d learned things she never knew, things she had no idea of knowing, and yet in a strange way it was the hidden message of Captain Scott: that victory and collapse were sometimes the same thing.”
An evocative slow-burning thriller, with the action largely seen through the eyes of a precocious child. Harriet was only a baby when the tragic murder of her brother tore a hole in the heart of her family. Twelve years later, and inspired by a motley assortment of heroes from history and literature (including Captain Scott, which isn’t the only reason I picked up this novel – honestly) she sets out to find her brother’s killer. In Tartt’s other novel (the excellent The Secret History) the characters all seem cold – applying to their crimes and their studies the same kind of academic rigour. Here, the hot summer setting and Tartt’s child protagonist lend the action a very different air: emotion runs rife and impetuousity rules.
Although it starts as a murder mystery, The Little Friend quickly transcends this genre. It’s a large novel and feels self-indulgent in places, sagging in a little in the middle, but it deals with some thought-provoking themes, such as consequences and interpretation. Set in twentieth-century Mississippi, race and class are inevitably major issues, but there are no black and white heroes and villains, and even the central criminal family provoke a range of responses from their audience. But the weight of this demanding novel lies squarely on the young shoulders of Harriet and she is more than engaging and complex enough to carry that burden. In fact she is the sort of character who I can imagine will stay with readers and haunt them long after they turn the final page – just as Harriett herself is haunted by Scott, Houdini and others. Recommended.