Many years ago I read and enjoyed ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt. When I discovered that she had a new book coming out last year (The Goldfinch), I scanned the internet eagerly for reviews. It was only then that I realised she had published a book in between these two. ‘The Little Friend’ hit the shops when my kids were little and I was struggling to find the time and the energy to read much fiction. I added the book to my ever growing ‘to read’ pile and, this past weekend, eagerly dipped in.
The protagonist is a twelve year old girl who has been largely brought up by the family maid and an assortment of elderly relatives, following the death of her brother when she was a baby. Her mother spends much of her time in bed, drugged and depressed, while her father is living in another town with his mistress.
‘The Little Friend’ is beautifully written, with plenty of interesting characters whose background is explored and developed in pleasing and believable detail. The setting is painted in evocative prose that draws the reader into the time and place so richly described. I could almost smell the dry air, the rain when it fell, hear the silence or the grass blowing in the wind. Much as I enjoyed the book however, it had it’s flaws.
The beginning impressed with some perceptive views on memory and how we mould the past to suit our current needs. As the author begins to weave the plot, slowly unfolding the world of the book for her reader’s delectation, I was drawn in and became eager to know what happened next. All of this makes it a well written book to be enjoyed.
My main issue is that the characters she created contained so many stereotypes. The baddies, with their drugs and their limiting outlook on life, particularly the insidious commentary from the matriarch and the blinkered outlook of the parents, seemed to fit too neatly the media perception of trailer trash. A hopeless picture was painted, despite there being potential amongst a few. These characters appeared weak and unlikeable.
Blame for the wildness of the protagonist seemed too typical of a neglected child who no one felt the need to listen to. This was explored in some detail with the lives of the elderly relatives being cited and the hardship of the maid’s life described. Still though, I felt dissatisfied that nobody in the cast took notice of the child. It is always so easy to blame parents for all ills, when the reality of life is more complex.
The book contains a lot of descriptive prose. While this served to set the scene or add depth to a character, it did in places become a little tedious. I grew tired of reading about drug taking and unpleasantness. It is a strength of the plot that I was impatient to move on, to find out what happened next.
I liked that the difficulties in communication between children and adults was highlighted. I also liked the contrast between the girl’s chaotic home life and that of her more normal little friend. Other plot devices seemed less realistic, such as why the sharp grandmother had not noticed the true state of her daughter’s home, despite being aware of her lassitude and lack of care for her children.
The book, as with life, did not finish cleanly. The main story being told was wrapped up, but it was clear that the impact would continue. When a complex tale has been told I much prefer a book that allows the reader to extrapolate; happy ever after is unrealistic. With this book, however, I felt that so much had been started that I struggled to hold on to all the threads explored. The pattern of the weaving was beautiful and complex, but the ending was left frayed. Perhaps the author wished her readers to consider that all may still unravel.
Despite these few misgivings I would still highly recommend this book. It is one that I will be thinking about for some time to come; a powerful, compelling and sometimes uncomfortable read. The characters came alive in a setting that was vivid and generally believable. It reminds the reader that we often choose to look away when confronted with a reality that would be personally challenging.