Queens, New York, 1965. Ruth Malone’s been a single parent to Frankie, five, and Cindy, four, since she split from their father, Frank, a year ago.
Ruth knew she should be proud of these kids. She should be proud of herself, bringing them up practically alone. They had toys and books, their clothes were neat and clean, they ate vegetables for dinner every night. They were safe here. It was a friendly neighbourhood: when they climbed out of their window back in the spring, an old lady brought them home before Ruth even knew they were gone.
Earlier in the evening before the children go missing and this time aren’t returned, she has an increasingly desperate telephone conversation with her lawyer, which ends with, ‘He can’t have the kids. He can’t have them. I’d rather see them dead than with Frank’. The fact that the children also disappear from their bedroom, which was locked from the outside, makes Ruth a suspect.
When she knows the police are on their way to begin the search, Ruth touches up her make-up and changes her clothes.
‘She knew that there would be men, strangers, looking at her, asking questions. Their eyes all over her like hands. She had to be ready for them. She had to look right.’
Initially the police assume Ruth’s hidden the children as some sort of punishment for Frank but then Sergeant Devlin, the man in charge of the investigation, details the times the police have visited Ruth’s apartment for noise complaints and the count of public intoxication they have on record for her. They go through Ruth’s bins and find ‘nine or ten empty bottles. Gin. Bourbon. Wine’ and then there’s the case under her bed:
A waterfall of postcard, letters, cards. He picked them up one by one and read the signatures. Dozens of them. All from men. Some from Frank, before they were married. A year’s worth from Johnny Salcito. A few from Lou Gallagher, going back to March or April. And some from other men, men she could barely remember.
Just like that, Ruth’s on trial for being a woman who doesn’t fulfil the patriarchy agreed role of angelic mother.
The other angle of the story comes from Pete Wonicke, a rookie journalist at The Herald who’s desperate for a big story. A combination of persistence and timing means he’s assigned to Ruth’s story at the point when the children are reported missing. Initially Flint uses this take to show how the press portray Ruth, focusing on her appearance and her lifestyle, but eventually it becomes more than that:
He wanted to know what she was like, what kind of woman this terrible thing could happen to. He knew that logically Ruth Malone was the same person she had been three months ago, just with a layer of grief and horror – but when tragedy strikes, there’s a tendency to assume that someone is different. Special. That there’s something about them that makes them the kind of person bad things can happen to. Because the alternative – that bad things can happen to anyone, at any time – is unthinkable.
Wonicke becomes obsessed with Ruth, believing he’s her white knight because, of course, a woman in distress is always in need of a man to save her.
Flint uses Ruth’s case to explore the double standards men and women are held to: she shows that several men connected to Ruth could be responsible for the children’s disappearance but they’re never considered suspects. Ruth’s guilty for not grieving in the correct way, for drinking, for having lovers, for not upholding the illusion of the perfect wife and mother. Of course, it’s not just the men that believe she should be meeting agreed criteria, it’s also many of the women who comment on the case, who’ve internalised the misogyny they’re exposed to on a daily basis.
Little Deaths impresses in a number of ways: the writing’s crisp and precise; Flint allows the reader access to Ruth’s thoughts, which make an interesting counterpoint to the views of those who watch but don’t really see her, and although the reader is aware of the outcome from the opening pages of the book, Flint’s plot grips as you try to work out how on earth Ruth could be found guilty and if she didn’t do it, who did?
I’ve seen some reviews which are critical of the ending of the novel. I suspect this is a matter of taste. Flint chooses to resolve the case and does so with what seems to me to be the most plausible scenario. That brings into question whether or not it needed to be stated explicitly, that depends on a reader’s preference for an open or closed ending. However, the way in which it’s revealed could be seen to be stretching the bounds of possibility although it’s not implausible. Whichever way your preferences lie, it’s a minor quibble with an impressive debut novel. Emma Flint is one to watch.
Thanks to Picador for the review copy.