Murder in Mississippi
A grisly crime haunts the heroine of Donna Tartt's long-awaited novel
Donna Tartt knows people have been talking about her. She's used to it. They started talking in 1992 when the author, then 28, made her literary debut with the best-selling thriller The Secret History. Fans and critics have been discussing her ever since. For 10 years. Wondering what, if anything, the petite woman from Mississippi would do next. For all the speculation, though, Tartt herself has been mysteriously silent.
She is reluctant to do face-to-face or telephone interviews, and agrees only to answer a few e-mailed questions for BookPage. "I always enjoy meeting the people who've read my book," she writes, "It's the actual publicity part television, photographs, interviews with the tape recorder going that's miserable for me." Tartt will have to come to terms with a little publicity misery, though. Her publisher, Knopf, is releasing her second novel, The Little Friend, with a first printing of 300,000.
Departing from the edgy tone of The Secret History, The Little Friend has a prose style bespeaking Tartt's own fondness for 19th-century literature. The difference is deliberate. Even a decade after her first book's publication, Tartt, who's said she'd rather spend the rest of her life reading than write another book, felt the pressure of second novel syndrome. "I found the best way of coping with it was to write a completely different kind of novel, different use of language and diction, different narrative technique, different approaches to story," she writes. "Because I was asking myself a completely different set of questions, the technical aspect kept me constantly engaged; it was almost like writing another first novel."
What her two books have in common is murder. The Secret History features a student murdered at a small artsy New England college, not unlike Bennington, which Tartt attended. The first chapter of The Little Friend begins, "Twelve years after Robin Cleve's death, no one knew any more about how he had ended up hanged from a tree in his own yard than they had on the day it happened." Tartt denies having a criminal mind. That distinction she reserves for "actual lawbreakers, i.e. Ted Bundy or Charles Manson or all those accounting crooks at Enron. But I've always loved Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, and I've been interested in accounts of true crime since I was small."
Set in Mississippi in the 1970s, The Little Friend juxtaposes the evil of murder with the innocence of childhood. Robin was 9 when he was hanged, his baby sister Harriet only 1. She grows up in the shadow of his death and at the age of 11, decides to avenge it. Clearly, Harriet is not like most kids. Small for her age with her dark hair bobbed short, she's precocious, bright, fearless, willful, "a bit big for her britches," as her grandmother says. You could argue Harriet is Tartt's alter ego. Tartt, would argue the contrary.
"Harriet isn't so much me as a sort of temperamental strain that recurs from generation to generation in my mother's side of my family. My great-grandfather used to tell stories of his own tomboyish and no-nonsense grandmother."Tartt, the elder of two daughters, portrays childhood so well because it's still all too vivid to her. "There's almost nothing about childhood that I don't remember," she writes. "Running around playing after dark in the summertime, the horrific boredom of school, lying sick in bed with tonsillitis, the exact flavor of haughty outrage alone in one's room after one was punished, simmering hatred of specific schoolteachers, and passionate love of others, petty feuds I had with friends that seemed, in my mind, very grand and Napoleonic."
Childhood, as Tartt remembers it, and as she paints it in The Little Friend, is short of idyllic. Harriet is too often left to her own devices by her mother, Charlotte, in a relationship that's grown distant and disturbed since Robin's death. The only constant in Harriet's life is Ida, the family housekeeper. "Ida was the planet whose rounds marked the hours, and her bright old reliable course . . . ruled every aspect of Harriet's life." When Charlotte fires Ida, Harriet mourns her the way she could never, as a baby, mourn Robin.
Harriet's story reflects the difficulties of being young, and the challenges children face when it comes to accepting authority something Tartt herself did not welcome as a girl. "Children have no money, no rights, no control over their lives," she writes. "It's no fun being told what to do." Seeking justice for her brother's killer is Harriet's way of taking control. As Harriet learns, however, justice is a slippery commodity, and her own sense of right and wrong becomes tarnished in its pursuit.
Her eager sidekick, Hely Hull, isn't as brave or as bright as Harriet, but he's willing to be drawn deeper and deeper into her plans for the sake of adventure and friendship. This includes breaking and entering the apartment of the man Harriet thinks killed Robin, only to be confronted with snakes. "The snakes had patterns on their backs like copperheads, only sharper. On the audacious snake . . . [Hely] now made out the two-inch stack of rattle buttons on the tail. But it was the ones he couldn't see that made him nervous. There had been at least five or six snakes. . . . Where were they?"
"I became interested in the phenomenon of snake handling when I was doing research on Greek mystery cults for The Secret History," writes Tartt, who had the opportunity to do some snake research firsthand. They run amok on her farm in Virginia, where she stays when she's not living in her Upper East Side apartment.
So where is home? "I guess I feel more at home in New York City than anywhere else, because that's where I've lived most of my adult life, but I don't feel entirely at home anywhere," Tartt writes. "Certainly not the South, despite the fact that my family has lived there for a long, long time and still lives there. To be a writer in the South is to be a cultural exile, standing apart from the place of one's birth, never quite at home."
Being a writer in the South has its emotional baggage, too, but Tartt isn't carrying any of it. "Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for literature. He didn't win it for Southern Literature. It seems to me literature is just literature, wherever it comes from." As usual, Tartt gives people something to talk about.
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.