From the time she was old enough to talk, Harriet had been a sightly distressing presence in the Cleve household. Fierce on the playground, rude to company, she argued with Edie, checked out library books about Genghis Khan, and gave her mother headaches. Though she was an A student, her teachers had never known how to handle her. Harriet was not disobedient, exactly, or unruly, but she was haughty, and somehow managed to irritate nearly every adult with whom she came into contact.
After my shattering experience with The Goldfinch, I took refuge in Donna Tartt's first novel, The Secret History and that helped a lot with the withdrawal symptoms. But the cravings hadn't completely gone away so I thought I'd try her only other novel, The Little Friend. Now the thing is, I'd bought this when it first came out, very excited, as I'd loved the first one so much. But I hadn't got very far with it, though after about twenty years I couldn't really remember why. I told myself that maybe I'd got better at reading since then, or my tastes had changed, or that having recently read her other two books I'd get the hang of this one more easily. Unfortunately I have to tell you that I abandoned it before the end.
This is a terribly sad confession to have to make, and I'm a bit ashamed of not persevering, especially as there is so much to like and admire in this novel. And indeed I did like and admire it for quite a long time. As you may know, this is the story of a family destroyed by the death of a child, Robin Cleve, who was found hanging on a tree in the garden. Nobody has ever discovered the truth of what happened. The only possible witness was his younger sister Allison, aged only four, and the baby Harriet, less than a year old. But Allison has always said that she remembers nothing and, when the story proper begins some twelve years later, she has become a strange, dreamy, uncommunicative girl who expresses no interest in the family tragedy. In fact nobody really wants to talk about it -- nobody, that is, apart from Harriet, who has become a highly intelligent, completely humourless member of a totally disfunctional family. Her father has long ago moved out and lives with a sleazy mistress in a nearby town, and her mother has withdrawn into a tranquillized dream world from which she rarely emerges. Harriet's grandmother and her three great-aunts have played the largest, though generally unwilling part in her upbringing, though the person she feels closest to is the outspoken housekeeper Ida Rhew. So Harriet determines to find out the truth behind Robin's death.
It sounds wonderful, doesn't it, and certainly everything to do with Harriet and her family is brilliantly conceived and written. But the novel began to lose me when it got deeper into the lives and doings of the criminal Ratcliff brothers, who Harriet suspects of having killed Robin. Aided by her adoring schoolfriend Hely, Harriet gets drawn more and more into their frightening and deranged world of drugs, snake-handling and general paranoia -- not of course as a particpant, but as a witness, which is bad enough. Now, though (or perhaps because) the depiction of all this is extremely powerful, I found I was increasingly skipping large chunks, a dreadful thing to do. And when I start to skip, I take it as a sign that I'd better just give up and move on somewhere else, and that's what I did.
I've seen this described as a young adult novel for grown-ups, and that sounds about right. Harriet's endless investigations could, as has also been pointed out, have come straight out of a novel like Harriet the Spy. But don't run away with the idea that I'm saying that this is a bad novel -- it certainly isn't that. In fact writing about it now has made me think I'd better get back to it sometime and actually finish it -- I suppose I was about two thirds through when I gave up. Anyway, not my proudest moment, but I suppose you can't win them all. I'd love to hear if anyone else felt the same, or conversely really loved it!