As usual, Tartt starts her book with a tremendous hook: in The Secret History it is a murder and in The Goldfinch it is a terrorist bomb explosion in an art gallery. In this book it is the death of eight-year-old Robin, found hanging from the branch of a tree in the yard.
Twelve years on Robin's mother is still living in the same house but her bereavement has turned her in to a shadow, sleeping all day. Harriet, who was a baby when Robin died, and her slightly older sister who was four and refuses to talk about that day, are cared for by the black housekeeper, Ira. On the basis of Ira talking about the no-good families in town, Harriet decides that Robin was killed by Danny Ratliff and sets out to exact her revenge.
This is a tremendous loss-of-innocence story, set in the lush greenery and abandoned places of Mississippi, with a side-cast of serpents, preachers, pool hustlers, great aunts, baptists and drug dealers. The dysfunctional Ratliff family, strung out on the drugs they are manufacturing, psychotic and hallucinating, vicious and violent dirty and and clever and pathetic, living in poverty and squalor, is a most tremendous creation.
It is a big book (555 pages in my paperback edition) and a very slow build. But the recreation of a tortured paradise, the landscape and the characters, is a tremendous achievement and well worth the perseverance. This is the recreation of the world of To Kill a Mockingbird complete with the inbuilt racism and the educated whites and the poor whites and the little girl fleeing from the people she imagines are her persecutors. But the world of Harriet is no rural idyll of childhood. Tartt's Mississippi is a dreadful place.
There's a lot of death in the book.
This is a book that overwhelms you with the powers of its detailed descriptions, not a book you can judge by a few quotes. However:
- "The screen door slammed shut. Robin ran outside, shrieking with laughter at a joke his grandmother had told him (Why was the letter damp? Because it had postage due), jumping down the steps two at a time." (Prologue)
- "'Life goes on'. It was one of Edie's favourite sayings. It was a lie." (Prologue)
- "When the Cleves chose to agree on some subjective matter it became - automatically and quite irrevocably - the truth, without any of them being aware of the collective alchemy which had made it so." (C1, The Dead Cat)
- "Her dill pickles - far from being the culinary favourite she believed them - were inedible, and that the demand for them from neighbours and family was due to their strange efficacy as a herbicide." (C1, The Dead Cat)
- "Jesus tells us not to lie, but that doesn't mean we have to be rude to our hostess." (C1, The Dead Cat)
- "She 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." (C3 The Pool Hall)
- "If it's miracles everywhere, what's the point?" (C3 The Pool Hall)
- "Knowing that it [puberty] was inevitable ('just a natural part of grwoing up') was no better than knowing that someday she would die." (C6 The Funeral)
- "A despairing glassline shiver ran down Danny's neck as he sped past the funeral home. Airy methamphetamine clarity gliddered over him in nine hundred directions simultaneously." (C6 The Funeral)
- "She thought of the pirate Israel Hands, floating in the blood-warm waters off the Hispaniola" (C6 The Funeral)
July 2020; 555 pages