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Sunday, April 22, 2012

 

First sentences: The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

For the rest of her life, Charlotte Cleve would blame herself for her son's death because she had decided to have the Mother's Day dinner at six in the evening instead of at noon, after church, which is when the Cleves usually had it. 

Gazing backwards and forwards at the same time, yet so headlong in its rhythm that we are pulled into an intense present moment just to keep up with it, The Little Friend begins.

What will follow will be a story both beguiling and evasive, leading us down apparently obvious paths that take us nowhere and forcing us back to where we began. Like a conventional thriller, The Little Friend begins with a dramatic event: the murder of a child. Unexplained as this murder is, the reader cannot be blamed for hoping there will be some revelation in the narrative. The first sentence, though, is enough to warn us - or else to shrug at us on a rereading, whispering, 'Well, I told you so' - that this is not really what the book is about.

Because, you see, the son's death, dramatically announced, is actually not the main subject of the sentence. Contained in a mere three words - 'her son's death' - it is dwarfed by the run-on explanation of the minutiae of family rituals. In a breathless rush, barely broken up by commas, we hear all the details: not just a dinner, but a Mother's Day dinner; the only commas supplied are to frame the aside of 'after church', a detail entirely concerned with the normal routine, the Cleves' relationship to the broader community, rather than the death of the boy.

It's almost as if we hear Charlotte herself lamenting, with the unspooling accumulation of detail of spoken rather than written English - especially when the writer is so poised a stylist as Tartt. And the effect is splitting: the lengthy recitation of Cleve customs dwarfing the death of the son tells us, in a cool, understated way, where Tartt's focus is going to lie. She is not studying Robin's death, but Cleve family life. His death will harrow it, but customs and habits and personalities will survive him, and that's what we're going to be looking at. In effect, it's a quiet hint that we will have no explanation for Robin's death because it's not the subject, even of the sentence that announces it.

The Little Friend is a book that approaches its subject slowly, and it's only deep into it that it becomes clear. Notably, for instance, the main protagonist of the story, the child Harriet, is absent from this sentence, from her mother's thoughts and feelings, almost absent from the whole first chapter. The following pages will wind through various members of the Cleve clan before finally settling on Harriet, and many more chapters before we'll see through the eyes of Danny Ratliff, the second protagonist. The thematic centre of the story is most clearly expressed through Harriet's kindly old great-aunt's sad remark, 'It's awful being a child ... at the mercy of other people.'  And deeply true though this is of Harriet's life, in fact it's not just childhood that puts you at people's mercy: adult Danny is just as much at the mercy of his own family, and his capacity to act against it will prove as fruitless as Harriet's search for Robin's killer.

But even more than that, we have this first sentence: a mother blaming herself for her son's death because she has made a tiny deviation from family ritual. Nobody else is blaming her, but the pressure of custom, of shared expectations, bears down on her with a crushing burden of guilt. Tartt is a great chronicler of the horrors of small frictions and everyday aggressions, and here in the first sentence, we see this horror in its purest, most pervasive form. The story that follows will mostly be about the Cleve family, about the nature of the Cleve family, but it will be about family in a broader sense ... and what we see hinted here in this first sentence is that, intentionally or not, explicitly or not, living together puts all of us at the mercy of other people. Robin falls first and hardest, but nobody will come out unscathed.

Comments:
I have never read any Tartt -- is this a good place to start with her writing or would you suggest another book as the best entry point?
 
Well, she's only published two books to date, though apparently there's another in the works: she's one of those writers who'd rather publish a great book every ten years than ten so-so books a year apart, and her work lives up to that preference.

So if you want to read her stuff, the choice is between The Little Friend and The Secret History. I chose the former to blog about largely because the latter has both a prologue and a first chapter and that's a little awkward given the framework I've set myself, but it's a terrific read.

Difference between them? The Little Friend is a measured, meandering, reflective, third-person view of life in the long aftermath of an unsolved murder. The Secret History is a breathlessly suspenseful view of the build-up to a murder that then unravels the aftermath, all told from the first-person perspective of an accomplice to that murder. The Little Friend is a natural reread; The Secret History is a good reread, but one of those books it's hard to put down first go-round, and frankly I envy Tartt for having written it. I raced through The Secret History; I soaked in The Little Friend.

So which to begin with depends on how you want to manage your expectations. I read The Secret History first (The Little Friend hadn't been published at the time), and consequently was a bit disappointed that The Little Friend wasn't so thrilling; it was only on the second reading that I realised what a good book it was; if you read it at Secret-History speed, you miss its virtues. So by that logic, I might suggest reading The Little Friend first - or I'd suggest it to you, because I know you're happy to read a book that's definitely literary in plot as well as style. On the other hand, if you have to make any long journeys in the near future, bring The Secret History with you; if you're like me, you'll think the journey too short. :-)
 
Well, I am flabbergasted.

I just finished The Little Friend and I am torn between two equally powerful urges: to immediately read it again and to buy The Secret History.

I was consciously trying to read The Little Friend at deliberate speed in order to proposively experience the writing and the structure -- and then I found I could not stop myself from reading "just one more section" and I felt myself amazed at the way it was technically sophisticated without being obviously technically sophisticated -- and wondering at the stylist quality (which I would liken to watching an oil painter working with a palette knife -- and then I reached the end and I felt -- out of breath.

Wow!

And thank you.
 
She's a truly beautiful writer, isn't she? And yes, I think the oil painting analogy is a good one; each sentence seems fairly straightforward, but she has a breadth and precision of expression, a sense of rhythm, a vividness of articulation that add up to something really special.

Do read The Secret History; it's every bit as well-written, and very exciting besides.
 
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