I didn’t decide to read The Little Friend until recently. That was because I was one of the few people who didn’t like Donna Tartt’s first book, The Secret History. I thought The Goldfinch was wonderful, however, so I decided to give The Little Friend a try.
This novel shows influences from practically every modern southern novel I’ve ever read, a bit of the Comptons from Faulkner, a touch of To Kill a Mockingbird, and lashings of Southern Gothic. The novel’s world is a harsh one, although not as twisted as that of Flannery O’Connor.
The main character is 12-year-old Harriet Dufresnes, a bookworm and misfit in 1970’s Alexandria, Mississippi. She is from a once-wealthy family whose rotting mansion, no longer in the family’s possession, is out in the countryside. Harriet lives in town with her mother Charlotte and sister Allison. But whatever future they might have had was prematurely blighted by the death of Harriet’s brother Robin, at the age of nine, 12 years earlier. Robin was found hanging from the tree at the edge of the yard, and his murder has never been solved. Their household has been made miserable by the ceaseless mourning and lassitude of Harriet’s mother.
Harriet is facing a long, lonely summer when she decides to avenge the death of her brother. She understands from the family’s maid Ida that Robin and Danny Ratliff were bitter enemies, so she decides that Danny, who is now a small-time criminal and meth addict, must be the murderer. She begins stalking him with the help of her best friend, Hely.
The Ratliff family embodies almost cartoonish O’Connor Southern Gothic. Farish, the oldest brother, is a half-crazed and hyperactive meth cooker and dealer. Although he talks about fighting in the Vietnam War, he spent it in a mental institution and is said to have calmed down since he had a head injury. Eugene is a street corner preacher who is inept at preaching. Curtis is a sweet-natured boy of limited mental capacity, and Gam, the boys’ grandmother, relentlessly favors Farish and does her best to undermine the other brothers’ efforts to leave their lives of crime.
Danny is rather a more tragic figure than anything else, but I was more interested in Harriet’s life than in her interactions with the Ratliffs. That situation provides the tension and danger of the plot, but I was sometimes bored by it and other times found it grotesquely funny.
Harriet’s family is the essence of dysfunction. Her mother is almost completely self-obsessed, spending all her time mourning Robin. She neglects her two daughters and stays in her bedroom. Harriet is dependent on Ida for any attention or care in a house that is only held from chaos by Ida’s efforts. Allison, although 16, is timid and milky and almost doesn’t exist as a character.
The other influences on Harriet are her grandmother Edie and her great-aunts. They are really the only points of stability in her life, especially her great-aunt Libby.
By and large, I was impressed by the energetic writing and the imagination of The Little Friend. The parts I don’t admire as much are the forays into an almost clichéd Southern Gothic of the Ratliff brothers. Still, I found it hard to put down this novel.