Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction · Book blog · Book reviews · Debut novel · Longlisted

More than a murder mystery: Little Deaths by Emma Flint

I seem to have been lucky enough to discover a wealth of new books recently – a number of the books that I have borrowed from my local library have been published in the last year, and even this year! I enjoy getting my hands on brand new fiction; there’s a sense of privilege that comes from digging into a recently published book, feeling like you may be one of the first to read it (and certainly to borrow it from the library!).
Emma Flint’s Little Deaths was published last December, and has been on my to-read list ever since I saw previews of it. A darkly clever book, Little Deaths centres on the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Ruth Malone’s young children one ordinary summer night. Set in 1960s New York, it is possible to feel yourself drowning in the suffocating July heat, which intensifies the suspicion and intrigue raised by the investigation into the disappearance. Ruth Malone is a young mother with a wealth of secrets hidden behind her immaculate appearance; her reaction to her children vanishing from their locked bedroom overnight, and the police’s horrifying discovery, is less than typical, and her apparent lack of emotion forces the spotlight of inquiry to be focused on her. Detectives are suspicious and condemn her almost instantly, but are struggling for evidence to prove that she is embroiled in the mystery. Young tabloid reporter Pete Wonicke is assigned to cover the case, and he is soon caught up in the intrigue surrounding Ruth – to the point of obsession. He is determined to release her from the grip of the investigation, but as a total stranger to Ruth, and with the police closely watching him, he soon takes on an unexpected and dangerous role in the case.

The novel begins the day of the disappearance, and from the opening pages is cleverly set up by Flint to paint Ruth in a less than favourable light. She is a complex character; a loving mother to two young children, but her own youth and estrangement from their father makes her restless and unhappy. Dissatisfied with the way her life has turned out, she frequently dwells on her past freedoms and longs to return to a time when she has no responsibilities. Flint’s portrayal of Ruth is fascinating and entirely relevant to society’s perception of women today, particularly through press depictions. Ruth takes pride in her appearance and is always well-presented, immaculately made-up and provocatively dressed. She uses her make-up to hide deep-seated insecurities; she longs to be desired by men and has many intense sexual relationships with undesirable male characters, both during and outside of her marriage. She has few female friends and is not popular within the close-knit neighbourhood community she resides in, forced to be unnaturally close due to the claustrophobic apartment blocks. The press seize onto this and hone in on Ruth, viciously criticising her mothering skills and portraying her as a harlot and harpy – Pete is disgusted by this but he too falls into this pattern of denigration when he is unable to break through Ruth’s self-imposed barriers. Flint uses Ruth as a commentary on the media, examining how women are reduced to body parts and stereotypes even in times of struggle and hardship. She discusses the influence the media has on its audience, as Ruth is ostracised further by her local community, and by complete strangers, as the police and press delve deeper into her personal life – women who have never met Ruth sneer at her and vocalise their harsh criticisms on her ability as a mother, and her betrayal of women everywhere.

The novel is relatively fast-paced and gripping; Flint drops hints and evidence at every turn, but keeps her cards hidden and doesn’t reveal the truth until the final few pages. A perceptive reader will have suspicions and create their own conclusions if they pick up on small inconsistences within the evidence, and character flaws that briefly creep into the open, but it is difficult to accurately guess at the true series of events until all is laid bare – a unique talent of Flint’s. The characters are all complex and implicated in some way, and their flaws are believable and very human. The narrative serves to keep the mystery bubbling over, as once Ruth has spoken at the very start of the novel, when the disappearances take place, readers do not hear from her again for a large chunk of the book. She is dangerously silent, and this only adds to the tension Flint is creating. Reporter Pete Wonicke takes on the narrator’s mantle; a clever tactic by Flint as he is both a neutral observer and a pawn in the story. His perception of Ruth and the case is well-meaning and valiant at first, but he too becomes embroiled in the suspicion as time rushes on and the police are no closer to uncovering the mystery. Ruth is present but absent, and it is hard to understand her thoughts and intentions even when we are inside her head.

The plot twists and turns, and as the action reaches a tense denouement there is still a sense of uncertainty and dissatisfaction – something is not right, but Flint keeps the reader hanging on. The final conclusion is both shocking and also a little disappointing; I felt that the novel had built up such intrigue and intensity (it was literally ‘unputdownable’) and was a little let down by the revelation. However, Little Deaths is an intelligent and suspenseful novel, and a brilliant debut by Flint. Her examination of the intricate workings of the human mind is both perceptive and unsettling, and her discussion of morality and the capability within all of us to commit acts of good and evil is provocative, challenging even the most rational reader to reconsider their opinions of humanity. Flint certainly deserves her place on the longlist of the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

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