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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 27, 2002

Tartt returns with new novel

By Hillel Italie
Associated Press

NEW YORK — Donna Tartt, famous writer and woman of mystery, sits with a smile on her face in a Japanese tea house on Fifth Avenue. Her voice a light, chatty drawl, she pokes her fork into a small square of tiramisu and ponders the meaning of murder.

"It's mainly the extremity of the situation that appeals to me as a writer," she notes. "The murderer completely cuts off himself from all society. It's the one irrevocable act."

Spared any intimate knowledge of such barbarity, Tartt discusses the snuffing of souls with the same detachment with which she assesses the dessert slowly shrinking on her plate like so much flesh on a corpse.

But murder has obviously touched the mind, if not the heart, of the 38-year-old author and Mississippi native, a sensation a decade ago with "The Secret History" — one of the most successful debut novels in recent times. Tartt took a decade to complete "The Secret History" and was not much faster turning out her next.

Readers of "The Secret History" will find a great deal has changed in her new book, which has a first printing of 300,000: The narration has shifted from the first person to the third person; the location has shifted from Vermont to Mississippi; the prose are looser.

But murder remains Topic A. The novel begins with the death of 9-year-old Robin Cleve, found hanging from a tree. The killer is never caught and Robin's younger sister, Harriet, later goes on the hunt herself, relying on a most creative memory.

"She possessed, to a singular and conformable degree, the narrowness of vision which enabled all the Cleves to forget what they didn't want to remember, and to exaggerate or otherwise alter what they couldn't forget," Tartt writes.

The inquisitive, bookish Harriet seems at least loosely connected to Tartt and the author acknowledges an unconscious tribute to Harriet the Spy, a favorite childhood character.

But she claims no special passion for writing about home. While she found Mississippi a useful setting because it saved on research time, she otherwise hesitated. The more personal the experience, she says, the harder it is to remain objective.

Anticipation was so high for "The Little Friend" that it reached the top five on Amazon.com before publication. Early reviews have been mostly encouraging, with Publishers Weekly praising Tartt as a "sophisticated observer of human nature."