Little Deaths by Emma Flint review

Hi everyone! This week the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 will be announced on Thursday 8th. To mark the occasion I’ve decided to review one of last year’s nominees, Emma Flint’s debut Little Deaths. Set in Queens, New York, 1965, Ruth Malone wakes up one day to find her two young children missing. Almost instantly she is suspected to be involved by the police due to her lifestyle. A young, intrepid journalist called Pete Wonicke is assigned to report on the case, one of his biggest breaks to date. As the case goes on however, Wonicke starts to believe Ruth may actually be innocent. But if Ruth wasn’t responsible for the children’s disappearance, then who was?

Flint successfully tackles the idea of social expectations placed on women, particularly mothers. Ruth is vilified by both the police and her neighbours because she does not behave like a ‘normal’ mother should. She drinks, has affairs and wears a lot of make-up and more provocative clothing. In one scene, we are told that two women in the neighbourhood dress similarly, which is never mentioned again. However there is constant reference to Ruth’s appearance, implying it is significantly at odds with the community. There is a feeling of anger and frustration when you realise that Ruth is being suspected simply because she doesn’t conform to expectations. In this way she almost reminds me of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, they are different therefore they are bad. This idea was compounded at the end of the novel.

Ruth’s grief was also beautifully written. Flint captures the anguish of losing one’s children, writing in heart-breaking detail the thoughts and feelings Ruth experiences. You cannot help but feel sorry for her, and hope she can find justice. Her attempts to escape this grief, either through drink or sex, were also sensitively handled. Despite being the primary suspect in the case, I found her really likeable as a character and felt sympathy for her.

However while Ruth came to life on the page, Pete was as flat as a pancake. He felt like a plot device a lot of the time, as he would have various conversations with police where they discussed new details about the case. Those conversations felt quite stilted to me, like Flint needed us to know information to drive the plot along so got the characters to explicitly talk about it. Once those were done, I wasn’t entirely sure why Pete was there. His obsession with Ruth also felt unnatural. It reminded me a little of Marc Behm’s The Eye of the Beholder, but I felt Behm’s character was more believable in a sense as he doesn’t have much to live for at the beginning, so he clings to this woman. Pete’s dream is to work as a reporter in New York, so it just felt unlikely that when he had reached his goal, that he would risk throwing it all away for someone he doesn’t know. There were many times when I wished I could skip the Pete parts and go on to Ruth.

Despite my problems with the characterisation of Pete, I think Little Deaths is an assured debut. Flint is a very capable writer and there are passages, mostly from Ruth’s point of view, which are beautiful. She was inspired by a real-life case and her writing did make me want to research the case and know about it. My issues with Pete did mean I felt the middle section of the novel dragged. However when Flint was at the top of her game, her prose was stunning. Overall the novel felt like a mixed bag but I am interested to see Flint develop as a writer.

Little Deaths is published by Picador and you can find more information here.

 

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