This isn’t really a review. (I say that at the start of most of my reviews, these days, don’t I?) This is one of those books that I simultaneously deeply respect (for excellent writing) and deeply resent (because it plays into a common trope that I really can’t stand). It’s really more of a book rant than a review.
Little Deaths, by Emma Flint, is loosely based on a true story. Two children were brutally murdered in a working-class neighbourhood in New York in the 60s, and after two years their mother was arrested on fairly flimsy evidence. The names and a few of the details are changed for the novel, but the basic plot is the same. The main character is Ruth Malone, a very attractive single mum to two children who go missing during an acrimonious custody battle. As the novel opens, Ruth is in prison, thinking about the last day she had with her children. As she reflects, the story of the investigation and her eventual arrest unfold for the reader. There are two other significant characters–Devlin, the police officer who becomes obsessed with pinning the murders on Ruth; and a reporter who becomes infatuated with her. (He’s so forgettable that I had to look up his name–Pete–when writing this, even though I only finished the novel two days ago).
Firstly, what was superb about this novel: Flint really does an incredible job of creating the atmosphere of the neighbourhood: claustrophobic, everyone-knows-everyone, twitching net curtains and gossipy neighbours. Throughout the novel, I found that there was incredible tension whenever the narrative was with Ruth–an impressive feat, given that we already know how the story ends when it begins. The beginning of the novel was extremely strong. Ruth goes about her morning routine in prison, reflecting on her morning routine at home, and the contrast is used to open up the story very effectively. It also seemed like this story was intended as both an homage to and an inversion of noir crime stories. It’s crammed with typing pools and cheap diners and a flame-haired femme fatale.
Here is what I didn’t like. (Probably I’m being unfair, since this is the latest in a string of books that has bugged me; it just happened to tip me over the edge). There seems to be a bit of a trend, in the name of creating “unlikeable” female characters, to make a woman pretty much as appalling as possible and then demand sympathy from the reader when she experiences consequences. Is Ruth Malone treated more harshly by the police than a man would have been at a similar time? Of course she is. However, we know from relatively early on that Ruth has problems with alcohol, hits her children when their behavior “makes” her take a drink, and has been known to say more than once that she’d rather see them dead than with her ex-husband. Partway through the story, her close friend confirms that even she thinks Ruth is fighting for custody out of spite, not love. She has lots of transient lovers–which may be irrelevant to her parenting, but leaving her kids alone to meet them isn’t–cheats on her husband*–and there are lots of different men in and out of the kids’ lives, some of whom are violent or drunk. Frankie Jr’s behavior towards his little sister suggests that he has already slipped into a caretaker role at the age of not-quite-six. In the glimpses we get of the kids, it appears that they are scared of Ruth. All this suggests that the care they are meant to be receiving from their primary caregiver (in this case, their mother) is not forthcoming.
I felt, the whole way through the novel, that the narrative was conflating things that don’t affect someone’s parenting (heavy make-up) and things that do (heavy drinking) in precisely the same way as Devlin does, albeit with a different inflection. It seems like the novel is a criticism of character being a factor in a murder trial–but, while make-up and tight skirts don’t make someone more likely to hurt their children, excessive alcohol use does. I mean, it really does. I didn’t feel like all the treatment of Ruth was based in misogyny–she was a good suspect. I’ve read a few reviews that draw parallels to present-day treatment of women who treat their children badly–claiming that women are still discriminated against in the child protection process. Maybe that’s the case in the US, but I have been involved in a fair chunk of child protection work, and let me tell you, in the UK, it is a million times easier to get children away from an unfit father than an unfit mother.
There are a couple of other bugbears: having created an interesting point-of-view character in Ruth, the story then doesn’t actually use that voice very much. This makes it even harder to understand where she’s coming from. Most of the story comes from Pete Wonicke’s perspective. Perhaps this is intended as a way to critique the way that the male gaze of both press and law affect Ruth’s chances–but Pete is an bland, two-dimensional character. He is entirely dominated by his attraction to Ruth in a way that does not feel plausible for any character over the age of twenty. Reading from his perspective is boring and makes the story drag.
I also disliked the ending, which I can’t explain without spoilers. Consider yourself warned. Ruth’s estranged husband, Frank, turns out to have killed the children because of a sort of possessive rage inspired by Ruth’s lovers. It feels completely unearnt. There’s nothing in his character up until that point that points to violent tendencies. Honestly, it feels like the reasoning being given is “oh, men are like that, you know–violent, jealous, possessive, angry–it’s always a man”. The solution to misogyny is not misandry. I am not on board with the idea that Frank obviously did it because he’s a man, but Flint states outright in the afterward that it just seemed most likely that he did it. For a novel trying to sell itself as a critique of lazy generalisations, to end with one seems like a poor choice indeed.
On balance, I completely understand why this novel was nominated for so many awards–Flint’s writing is excellent, and I’d read another book by her–but I just couldn’t stand it. Honestly, I am disinclined to give out free passes for child neglect to women just because they’re women. So sue me.
*Spoiler-containing aside: Yes, at the end of the novel, it turns out that the husband is a very bad guy. But neither Ruth nor the reader has any reason to suspect that for most of the book–she isn’t cheating because he’s violent; she’s cheating because she’s bored and she wants glamour.