Rx: What I Learned From THE LITTLE FRIEND by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt is a master storyteller: she lets us watch as “candle-flames dissolve and leap up in wicked prisms,” lets us hear “a chorus of tree frogs shrill back and forth across the road, their song pulsing vertiginously between left ear and right in stereophonic sound,” lets us smell Christy Dooley’s soup breath. Though both The Little Friend and The Goldfinch are quite lengthy, she really does such a lot in just 555 pages. There’s a magical quality to her writing that really immerses you within the community – you truly feel like you know every square in town and every neighbor dotted down the street, so that you become completely taken by this new world and the intimate details of her characters. In this way, there is a striking resemblance between Tartt’s style and Harper Lee’s.

In an interview, Donna Tartt notes that this is indeed her motive.  She writes to create an escape for adults to read as they once did as children – to recapture the imagination of youth and one’s ability to get lost in story, to observe the world with unfiltered eyes, seeing it anew or as one did as a child. She achieves this goal via a coming-of-age lens that weaves the fabric of town through overheard conversations, rumors, and myths of its tragic history and seedy outskirts. This world teeters between the sleepiness, the stasis of Charlotte and Allison’s trance-like depression and the adventurous, captivating side of dreams in which everything can be related to a ghost story, a mystery, an exotic mission read about in National Geographic. The cohesion with which she writes description is so seamlessly and seemingly effortless that one hardly notices that most every word used harkens back to those haunting themes of embellished stories, trances, dreams. This is the world of Harriet, our main character, who loves history and archaeology – even the archaeology of her own family – as “What interested her is that they no longer existed.” Throughout The Little Friend Harriet must learn to discern between appearance and reality as she loses the child-Harriet and morphs into the young adult-Harriet.

It is through the progression of loss that Harriet snaps out of her dream-like world and moves forward into adulthood with the recognition that loss is a part of life but it doesn’t mean we should stop living, adventuring, and being inspired by a little fiction woven into fact. Though Harriet’s whole life has been surrounded by the aftermath of her brother’s death, she still doesn’t have a strong understanding of loss because to her Robin is more alive in death, he’s a looming presence in their lives

“Like a nasty hang-over, the vapors of the dream still pressed in on him low and poisonous.”

First, her lifelong cat, who’s aged and weary must be put down humanely.  Next, there’s an accidental killing of a wild bird at Harriet’s own hand, for which she feels extremely guilty. The loss of her caretaker and mother-figure, Ida, who though not dead, abandons Harriet, which feels all the more painful that Harriet internalizes as her own fault,

“And then it fell on her like a heavy stone that Ida was gone, and Libby was dead, and everything was terrible and wrong.”

At the climax Harriet’s attempted murder of Danny Ratliff lands Gum, his mother, in the hospital. With the death of her Aunt Libby, all of the absences around her become more real, more painful, more intolerable. These losses suffocate her, like when she’s practicing holding her breath under water. Water, a recurring image that marks time and represents both childhood wonder, the vast unknown, and loss itself, which she desperately tries to escape, escaping death like Houdini. All these losses culminate with her final loss of innocence, when she believes that she’s responsible for Danny’s death struggling to get free from the water tower.

Tartt’s work is so incredibly symmetrical that you could chart descriptions, and turns of phrase, and little snippets of stories across the work as a whole and see a changing character in a semi-static world, which goes to show just how much time and effort was invested into Tartt’s writing this book!

Tartt taught me three really interesting storytelling tools through her writing.

  1. She narrates in third person past and swaps POVs without the reader ever wondering who the speaker is. She does this by creating distance between the narrator and the POV. Pages 73-74 for example, are emblematic of this POV flipping. She beings with Harriet’s wonderings and uses Harriet’s language to describe “her patent-leather shoes clack[ing] on the sidewalk . . . and pungent clumps of cut grass, crushed petals blown from shrubbery, litter[ing] the damp cement. . . Harriet said nothing. Along she clicked, head down, her hands behind her back, lost in thought.” She zooms out from the close third she was writing with – she doesn’t tell us what those lost thoughts are. Instead she uses shared dialogue and action between her and the next POV, Hely to swap POVs. Hely starts to sing and when Harriet snorts, we get his perception of that snort as ‘gratifying.’ Then there is an exchange of dialogue, Hely asks Harriet what she wrote down her goal was at Sunday School, and then we dive into Hely’s consciousness, using his language, zooming in to his view of Harriet:

    “It was for cryptic and unpredictable gestures like this that he adored Harriet. You couldn’t understand why she did things like this, or even why they were cool, but they were cool. . . And this was the Hallmark of Harriet’s touch: she could scare the daylights out of you, and you weren’t even sure why.”

  2. Tartt creates urgency with her syntax in a really cool way and her prose undergoes a sort of juggling with what’s happening to a character mentally, physically, and by reflex, in a trick that propels the moment forward. I’m specifically thinking of the scene where Harriet is attempting to hold her breath like Houdini on pages 80 and 81. We have the internal mental monologue with the interesting syntax: “Ten. Twenty seconds. Thirty. She became conscious of the blood thumping hard and harder in her temples. Thirty-five. Forty.” This leads into reflex: “Harriet’s eyes watered, her heartbeat throbbed in her eyeballs.” Back to mental: “Forty-five.” Reflex: “a spasm fluttered in her lungs.” Then physical: “she was forced to pinch her nose shut and clamp a hand over her mouth.” This cycle continues as she counts, her eyes water in reflex, and she has to get up and walk around to take her mind off it. When the reflexes begin taking over, becoming unbearable, she tries to ground herself in physical descriptions of “desk, door, Sunday shoes pigeon-toed on the dove-gray carpet,” but hallucinations, tricks of the mind, take over the “room jumped with her thunderous heartbeat and the wall of newspapers chattered as if in the pre-trembling of an earthquake.” It goes on like this until Harriet describes the appearance of the hallucination – the merging of the mental and reflex, in an attempt to ground herself again, with the “wasp buzzing . . . room whirling . . . shower of sparks.”
  3. Tartt uses parentheses to add extra details from her character’s POV that almost seem like an afterthought but add so much more to the characters’ descriptions, it’s like the things you say to yourself but refrain from saying out loud:

    “Mr. Dial (who, as a Christian businessman, took an interest in the ailing and elderly, especially those of means who had no family to advise them).”

  4. There are a few moments with both Hely and Harriet that Tartt zooms out and looks forward into their lives in a way that really completes the picture of how much of an impact these events will have on them:

    This isn’t real, he told himself, not real, no it’s just a dream and indeed, for many years to come – well into adulthood – his dreams would drop him back sharply into this malodorous dark, among the hissing treasure-chests of nightmare.”


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