This one's definitely weird. The time-frame is not 100% clear, but I believe the book takes place in the 70s. It is set in Mississippi. The story follows the fortunes of two families-one well off enough to hire a housekeeper (but fallen from greater fortune-they used to have a plantation) the other trailer trash.
The link between the two families is that Robin Dufrensnes (the Dufresnes' being the better-off family) encountered Danny Ratliff a few minutes before being hanged from a tree in broad daylight at the age of 9. It is now 12 years later and Robin's brainy sister (born after his demise) is looking for a project for the summer. She decides at first on figuring out who killed her brother, and after determining that Danny Ratliff killed her brother (based on circumstantial evidence) switches her summer-project from detection to vengeance.
Danny Ratliff lives with his older brother Farish(a taxidermist with a methamphetamine lab) his brother Eugene (who was Saved in prison and now preaches on the side of the road) his retarded brother Curtis and his grandmother Gum. Gum is an odd woman-her grandchildren-even the psychotic speed freaks-love her but she's very negative and often reminds her grandsons never to expect to get anywhere. On the other hand, Gum has had numerous fatal diagnoses over the year and is still alive to tell the tale. She's also the only character who brings and humor to the plot.
I'm not really a connoisseur of Southern American Gothic writing, so I can't tell you how well this fits the bill but the book certainly touches on some of the creepier aspects of rural American life (speed-freak-rednecks, snake handlers and the unexplained murder of Robin Dufresne in broad daylight) as well as some of the things I'd expect to find in a southern novel (racial tension, longing for the past, mental illness and an unwillingness of the part of the Grown-ups to address unpleasant subjects) However, I am unsure how much of this is necessary to the plot of the novel and how much of it is thrown in because city-dwellers like me expect it to be in the deep south. We expect them all to be bible-thumping,snake-handling psychotic racists down there.
Either way, there is a strong element of the ridiculous in this book-much of which centers around Gum (the Ratliff boys' grandmother) This redeems the book whenever it's headed towards sheer pathos. Although that said, I'm not in a hurry to read anything else by Donna Tartt.