Greek tragedy contributed to the mise en scène of Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History (1992). Four classics students, privileged even by the standards of the elite Vermont college they attend, conduct a bacchanal and, in their frenzy, kill a local farmer, tearing him apart in much the same manner that Pentheus is done away with in Euripides’ Bacchae. Their secret is discovered by two other classicists, both friends of theirs: Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran responds with blackmail; Richard Papen, the narrator, agrees to help dispose of Bunny. It’s an improbable set-up, but Tartt manages it deftly enough for that not to matter.
Crucially, Richard is a likeable character. He’s an outsider: he comes from California; his father runs a gas station. He’s a little too easily impressed by the intellectual swagger of the crowd he falls in with, and dazzled by their money and class, but it’s easy to forgive him that. The others also are well drawn. Bunny, appealing enough at the start, and the first of the gang to befriend Richard, gets increasingly loathsome as the book goes on, until the reader is as keen as his friends are to get rid of him. And then there’s Henry, who dominates the others with his awesome intellect, frosty demeanour, impeccable deportment and deep-seated but never advertised generosity. Henry is very cool – and just a bit mad. The pace of the plot is unflagging. The prologue lets you know at once what’s going to happen – ‘The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation’ – and through the first half of the novel, everything builds towards the anticipated moment of his death. Like the characters, the reader is too focused on this to wonder what will happen afterwards: a long downward spiral of guilt and heavy drinking, descending towards chaos.
The novel perhaps owes to Greek tragedy the notion that the only sure consequence of murder is yet more murder, but the role of the classics is otherwise more decorative than structural, providing a badge of difference for the principal characters, a classy veneer of erudition (a little chipped in places) and some handy plot devices. The Secret History has its roots in decidedly 20th-century forms: it’s a contemporary campus thriller more at home in the cinema than a Greek theatre. The really powerful forces at work are not so much mythological as metereological. Richard nearly dies trying to survive the savage Vermont winter in an unheated room: Henry arrives in the nick of time to save him. A freak late snowstorm spoils Henry’s otherwise perfect plan for doing away with Bunny without arousing suspicion. The weather also contributes a great deal to the novel’s atmosphere (it’s a very atmospheric novel). Hampden College is a remote place. Richard tells us in the opening chapter that he’s now 28, recalling events that are almost a decade old: but whenever the action is supposed to occur, it’s rife with internal anachronisms. The reason for this is almost certainly an extra-textual one: Tartt, who was born in 1964, began the book while still at Bennington College and finished it eight years later. But the result is to detach the story from real-time referents. The weather has a similar geographical effect, isolating Hampden from the rest of the world.
At first glance, The Little Friend – the second novel that Tartt’s many fans have been waiting a decade for – seems to be exploring entirely new territory, leaving behind the icy Vermont winter for a sultry Mississippi summer, the classics for the Bible, the 1980s for the 1970s, friends for family, university for Sunday School, first-person narration for third. But then most of these things are quite easily mapped onto their equivalents in The Secret History. The weather still plays a fundamental role (‘Stormy, luminous spring evening; low, smudged clouds and golden light, dandelions and onion-flowers spangling the lawn. The air smelled fresh and tight, like rain’) and the town of Alexandria, like Hampden, feels geographically and temporally remote. It’s unmistakeably the Deep South, but the world of the novel is hermetically self-contained.
The heroine is Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, 12 years old, ‘sturdily built, like a small badger, with round cheeks, a sharp nose, black hair bobbed short, a thin, determined little mouth’. When she was a baby, her big brother Robin was murdered, hanged from the tree in the front yard on Mother’s Day. The culprit has never been found. It’s a bizarre crime: this is not how children get killed. But the details of his death are unimportant; what matters is the fact of it. The effect it has on Robin’s parents is less unusual. His mother sinks into a depression from which she is still suffering more than a decade later, sleeping irregularly, living in squalor, hoarding newspapers, taking little interest in her surviving children. His father leaves, moving to Nashville, though he still sends money home, and everyone pretends he’s only away because of his work.
Harriet is fascinated by the brother she never knew, the wonderboy of her great-aunts’ stories, the phantom child her mother neglects her in favour of. She is also intrigued by the circumstances of his death, which remains a family taboo. ‘Though the Cleves loved to recount among themselves even the minor events of their family history . . . the events of this terrible Mother’s Day were never discussed . . . and this was unusual, because these family discussions were how the Cleves made sense of the world’ – like most people. So Harriet decides to find out who killed her brother, finally to transform the still raw and senseless event into narrative, and achieve some kind of closure. Her brief and haphazard investigations soon lead her, without good cause, to lay the blame on Danny Ratliff, one of her brother’s classmates. Now in his early twenties, he has just been released from jail; learning of his return, Harriet decides to exact revenge.
As the novel develops, two narrative strands – one with Harriet at its core, the other with Danny – emerge and entwine. The characters that surround Harriet are described with affection and amusement. We see the adults – her mother; her grandmother Edie and great-aunts Libby, Adelaide and Tatty; the family’s maid, Ida Rhew – basically through Harriet’s eyes: so they are greatly loved, little understood (at a funeral, Harriet is offended by the old ladies’ ‘brisk expertise in the protocol of sorrow’), and very much larger than life. Harriet ‘did not care for children’s books in which the children grew up, as what “growing up” entailed (in life as in books) was a swift and inexplicable dwindling of character’. Certainly, Harriet and her best friend Hely – a boy, and a year younger than her – are the fullest characters in the novel. Her 16-year-old sister, Allison, and his older brother, Pemberton, a contemporary of Robin’s and Danny’s, have already been dwindled beyond comprehension by adolescence.
The Ratliffs are drawn with a similarly thick pen, but are, by contrast, monstrous. Danny’s brother Eugene is a preacher, a crazy and lousy one at that, with a face disfigured by a hideous burn, a remnant of the accident that converted him from crime to Christianity. The youngest brother, Curtis, is ‘retarded’, and, alone of his clan, incurably sweet-natured. Their grandmother, Gum, is ‘a tiny, emaciated, leather-brown creature’, riddled with cancer but apparently immortal: ‘if someone was to cut Gum open at this point, there was apt to be no blood in her at all, only a mass of poisonous sponge.’ But the real demon – and the real villain of the piece, though not for the reasons you might expect – is the eldest brother, Farish: huge, violent and unpredictable, he has only one eye, having blown the other away in a failed suicide attempt. He manufactures amphetamines at the small trailer encampment where the Ratliffs live, and he and Danny have developed severe and debilitating addictions.
Farish has arranged for a man called Loyal Reese, the brother of an acquaintance he made in jail, to come and stay with his brother Eugene. Loyal is a religious nut, too, whose form of worship involves the handling of poisonous snakes, a not inconsiderable menagerie of which he carts about with him. Farish has an overwrought plan to conceal a large consignment of his drugs in Loyal’s van, which Loyal will then unwittingly carry over the state line, the snakes deterring anyone from inspecting the vehicle too closely. Snakes feature prominently, not least in some of the exhilarating set-pieces: Harriet and Hely go out snake-hunting one sweltering afternoon at a new housing development; they also break into Eugene Ratliff’s ‘Mission’, the upper storey of a building that he rents from Mr Dial, Harriet’s Sunday School teacher, and are still inside, with Loyal’s snakes, when Eugene, Farish and the whole sick crew turn up. If anything, Tartt’s talent for plotcraft has grown since The Secret History. As Harriet and Danny’s paths cross and recross, they become increasingly, and mistakenly, convinced of the role that each plays in the other’s life, until finally they confront each other, face to face.
Like The Secret History, it’s thrilling stuff, and viscerally involving; but at the same time, like The Secret History, emotionally unengaging. Part of the trouble is that the menace the Ratliffs represent spills too easily into farce. Tartt appears to have some sense of this. Farish is first seen at the pool hall, where Hely is buying a comic book: ‘Half-heartedly, he leafed through a story in Dark Mansion called “Demon at the Door” (“;AARRRGGGHH – !!! – I – I – have unleashed a – a – loathsome EVIL . . . to haunt this land UNTIL SUNRISE!!!!”).’ But admitting to the problem – if that’s what this is doing – doesn’t amount to solving it. The scariest monsters are the ones that turn out to be all too human: Farish remains too straightforwardly ghoulish, and too unlikely.
A related problem is Harriet’s invulnerability. She’s intelligent, imaginative, inquisitive. Among her heroes are Houdini and Captain Scott; her goals, other than tracking down and punishing her brother’s killer, include breaking her own record for holding her breath underwater. She likes to ask awkward questions, and to disagree with her great-aunts about the Bible. She’s irrepressible, and irresistible: so well loved by her creator that you know no harm will come to her. This makes it easy to enjoy the story without anxiety, sure that everything will turn out, if not for the best, at least OK.
By coincidence, the weekend that I read The Little Friend I also watched Alien on TV, and I was struck by the similarity of their impact. The only thing I couldn’t remember, couldn’t be sure of, in the film is whether or not Ripley saves the cat: I could watch the human members of the spaceship’s crew being picked off one by one and horribly killed with the combination of adrenal excitement and equanimity that good scary movies generate, but when the ship’s cat came under threat I felt an altogether different kind of concern, which had to do with the animal’s uncertain role, but also with its vulnerability. The Little Friend is a bit like Alien without the cat. Harriet’s resilience is vital to her charm, but it’s distancing, too: she’s not only charming, but charmed.
She does, however, grow up: it happens quite suddenly at the end of the novel, and even entails the ‘swift and inexplicable dwindling’ of her character. Very near the end, her long absent father reappears, and unexpectedly utters the novel’s title. The words have been a riddle throughout the story; a number of possible answers, none of them entirely satisfactory, have suggested themselves along the way. And when the answer at last comes, it isn’t an answer at all, but a whole new set of questions that turns Harriet’s story inside out (this is vague, but I don’t want to give away the ending): so much of what she has known is revealed to be wrong. Growing up, the novel seems to be saying, is also learning that the closer you look at things, the more complicated they become.