The aspect I’ve most enjoyed about Donna Tartt’s novels is the high-low split; the way she structures her novels as “literary” while maintaining a real pulp energy. I need to reread The Secret History, but if memory serves it felt like a decadent 80’s college coming of age story by way of seedy crime movies. Similarly, The Goldfinch read like Dickens doing the same. Clearly those are reductive descriptions; Tartt forges her own distinct voice out of these disparate elements. It is a voice tailor made for my tastes. Many of my favorite authors (Gene Wolfe, Kelly Link, Caitlin Kiernan, Jeff Vandermeer, Elizabeth Hand) do a similar thing on the boundary of pretentious literary fiction and scifi/fantasy/horror. After reading this, the last of her published novels I hadn’t read before, Tartt has to be in that favorite authors conversation.
Harriet Dufresne’s brother was murdered the year she was born and the killer was never found. This has wrecked her family. When she is 12, in the 70’s, she gets obsessed with the idea of solving her brother’s murder and becomes convinced that one of his classmates, Danny Ratliff, is guilty. The narration is omniscient third person, but most often inhabits the perspective of Harriet or Danny. Harriet presents like Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird lost in a Denis Johnson crime novel or the world of the show Justified. She is precocious and unyielding, and like Scout she’s presented with adult problems before she is emotionally ready for them. But Tartt takes her to far darker places, and makes her more culpable in the story’s crimes, both personal and systemic. I found her story and that of her family convincing from the beginning. It took a little longer with the Ratliff clan, who lie somewhere between Faulkner’s Snopes and Leonard’s Crowes. As the novel progressed, I was more on board.
Tartt’s is treading into Flannery O’Connor territory here, and doesn’t suffer too much for the comparison. She handles themes of racism similarly; all of her characters have prejudices of one stripe or another and some are openly racist. Like O’Connor, she doesn’t bother to tell you this is bad, trusting the reader to know. Harriet, being a southern relatively well off and sheltered white child doesn’t grasp the full picture of race in the South, but is deeply unsettled by the beginnings of her understanding. I’d be interested in other perspectives, but to my mind, she pulls this aspect of the novel off.
Tartt’s prose is elegant without being showy. Her characterization is strong. Unlike many other pretentious literary writers, she’s not afraid of plot. She is never didactic, and is often funny. The Little Friend is haunted by the past without being nostalgic, unblinking about its character’s faults without being cruel, is deeply sad and very funny. I will certainly read this again. Now that I’ve read all her work, I think The Goldfinch is my favorite (though I should really reread The Secret History to make sure). That said, all three are excellent, and well worth the time.
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