Ruth Malone’s two small children go missing one hot July day in 1965 in Queens, New York. But it is immediately obvious to the police that Ruth – separated from her husband, working part-time as a cocktail waitress, her flat full of love letters and alcohol – is not the typical portrait of a grieving mother. The press immediately seize upon the salacious aspects of her life to add interest to their stories, and initially, Pete Wonicke, an aspiring young journalist, toes the line. However, as the case continues, he becomes increasingly fascinated by Ruth, and convinced that the accusations that are being flung at her are completely false, even though it is her unconventionality that drew him in.
Little Deaths is cleverly structured. We see rather less of Ruth’s narrative than we do of Pete’s, and so, although we do get glimpses of her thoughts and feelings, we are kept on the outside of the story for much of the novel, waiting to get another look into her psyche. Furthermore, Emma Flint can obviously write. Little Deaths is immensely readable while still being precise and thoughtful; the opening chapter, when Ruth recalls putting on her ‘face’ to get her through the day, is perfectly observed and gripping without resorting to a flashy ‘hook’, although we know that she is narrating from prison.
This book has received rather a lot of attention, and has now been longlisted for the Baileys; when I first read the synopsis, I have to admit I was a little puzzled. The plot-line seemed incredibly familiar, and it seemed unlikely it could have anything interesting to say about gender while moving through the hackneyed story of a woman who is labelled ‘bad’ by conservative mid-twentieth-century norms. I was worried it would be another example of an historical novel that allows us to feel good about ourselves because we are, supposedly, no longer quite so judgemental. To this extent, Flint effectively supersedes her basic material. She gives Ruth an unexpected individuality that makes it difficult for the reader to fit her neatly into a moral framework. Little Deaths is not a surprising novel; the outcome is predictable. But, given that this is a book that is really about Ruth, rather than about solving a crime, it succeeds on its own terms.
Little Deaths, ultimately, is perhaps too well-structured. You can almost see the scaffolding behind each of the chapters, and the ending could be used as a writing-course example of how to tie up a character’s emotional journey while knotting together loose plot threads at the same time. I wanted more of the flashes of uncertainty we see in Ruth’s narration, and less of the tight organisation that keeps the narrative thundering along. For this reason, it’s a difficult novel not to like; but I found it hard to get especially enthusiastic about it. It’s a classic Baileys longlistee, a literary crime novel that delivers, but I’d be surprised to see it on the shortlist.
I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.