Little Deaths, By Emma Flint

What Is It?

This book had me intrigued for quite a few reasons. Firstly, the cover is truly brilliant with its stark, simple and eye-catching design. Secondly the blurb of the book is really interesting and thirdly this book is inspired from a real criminal case and since I had not read something from this genre for a long time, this one seemed liked the perfect pick. Also, this book is an excellent social commentary on trial by media, so I had pretty high expectations as well.

It is 1965 in Queens, New York and Ruth Malone – single mother, cocktail waitress, and purveyor of sexual pleasures – discovers that her two small children have gone missing from her apartment. When the police come to investigate, they find multiple alcohol bottles inside her house, along with an address book that is filled to the brim with contacts of different men. What’s more is that each discovery reinforces the police’s theory that Ruth was not a loving mother and she finally snapped, by killing her kids.

The situation takes a turn for the worse, when their battered bodies are found a few days later, and the ensuing murder investigation becomes the hot topic on every New Yorker’s lips. A literary crime thriller with intrigue, deceptive characters and above all beautiful writing, this book will haunt you, long after you have turned the last page.

The Bigger Picture

The novel has two main perspectives. The first being Ruth and second being Pete Wonicke, a young reporter who is trying to establish himself by solving this case. Almost instantly, Wonicke becomes enamoured by Ruth, and is attracted to her lifestyle, including the theory of the lead detective, that she is guilty. So while he initially just wants to know why Ruth killed her children, the more he learns about her, he wonders if she has indeed committed the crime.

The strongest sections of the novel allow us behind Ruth’s brittle mask of pride, ego and makeup. Flint describes her grief, loss and loneliness with a delicacy that is tough, heart-wrenching and poignant. In fact, some of the moments of her attachment to her children are quite painful to read.

She stretched out a hand but Devlin was suddenly there, pulling her back. Forbidding her to touch. She opened her mouth, but the flies and the heat and the smell and the sudden awareness that this was the hair she had shampooed and combed and braided for four years made everything go dark for a moment.

And it is not just the big things, descriptions of even the simplest things, like the touch of a child’s fingertips, the applying of makeup, a bite of food swallowed by a grieving mother, – some lines in this book are truly poetic and imaginative.

She felt her daughter’s eyes on her, stroking her powdered cheeks, her sooty lashes, the sticky cupid’s bow of her lips. Felt those tiny fingers like kisses, patting her skin, tugging and twisting her hair.

She swallowed coffee and the nibbled corners of things and they were bitter through the grief-taste that lay thick on her tongue. Voices were muffled, finding their way down through the weight of her grief, and her throat was choked with it.

With some well-written characters, that are unique and mostly unlikeable, coupled with some incredible writing, Emma Flint has managed to create a very atmospheric novel. Flint pulls the reader into the finely observed working-class Queens neighbourhood, where the heat shimmers on the crowded apartment buildings and the social surveillance of women is palpable. This is a place where gossip is standard and judgement is quick and brutal.

Ruth’s world is haphazard and nicotine drenched, as is her desire to escape the confines of the small world, and lead a bigger life than the one allotted to her because of her sex. Whatever accusations the cops throw at her, Ruth maintains, ‘They knew nothing of guilt. They were not mothers.’  This guilt tortures her at every single moment of her life as she feels that she has failed in her duty to protect her children. As time goes on, all Ruth knows is to pull herself together, to paint her face and present a face to the world – even if she is broken inside. However, to the world, her lack of emotion and grief, is enough evidence of her guilt.

More than anything, Emma Flint in this book analyzes the stigma that people who make edgy decisions and women who live more promiscuously than others are somehow ‘not so nice‘ people. This in turn forces readers to put themselves under the microscope as well. People are not cookie- cutters and some individuals choose to live differently than normal status quo. Some, for that matter, live that kind of life, because they are in circumstances that are beyond their control. Like Charles Bukowski says, ‘Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.’

Ruth might not be the most conventional character; and while she might invoke your sympathy for her unfortunate circumstances, she is also unlikable in cases where she neglects her dog, but she eventually redeems herself when she refuses to give up her role as a mother. She does her best to take care of them and clings to their memories when they are dead. In fact, some moments post their killings are quite painful to read.

The ending for this novel is quite dramatic and unexpected and even though you discover what happened to the kids, it is without a sense of justice. And this is eventually, what makes the book true to life and honest as many things in life are usually left unfinished and chaotic.

Final Verdict

A very engrossing and intelligent novel, Little Deaths is written with both subtle power and an assured control. And this is clearly reflected in the writing of Flint {cannot believe this is her debut novel}, which is lyrical on one hand and powerful on the other hand, thereby preventing characters from being unambiguously good or bad.

In conclusion, Little Deaths is a strong and confident addition to both the literary fiction and domestic dystopia section – a story about how flawed, angry and hurt women navigate through hostile and intimate society that more often than not turns viciously punishing, when those women take a stand or rebel. This book is rooted in the truths we don’t like to think about and deserves to be read by everyone. Make sure you do not miss this one!

Feature image courtesy: Thin Blue Spine