A A A

Little Deaths, Emma Flint

By Helena McNish, on 4 May 2017

Longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize 2017

Set in the summer of 1965, Little Deaths is an exploration of motherhood, femininity and guilt wrapped up in the disappearance of two angelic children and the suspicions the police have over their young, beautiful and wild mother. Flint’s debut novel opens with a stark contrast; a description of the woman of before, and the woman of after. All the while the reader is furiously gripped by Flint’s careful and considered use of language, trying to figure out for themselves exactly what happened to the children, but knowing that their mother, Ruth Malone, will end up in prison, as revealed in the opening chapter.

Inspired by the real-life case of Alice Crimmins, who was charged with the murder of her two young children in 1965, despite there being very little evidence as to who had killed the children. Flint’s version of the grieving mother is a fascinating portrayal of womanhood, and even more significant given the misogynistic attitude of the police and newspapers in the ‘60s. The disparity between Ruth’s private reaction, her intense grief and pain, and her desire not to be publicly broken by the deaths are heralded as sure signs of guilt, with reporter Pete Wonicke discovering that “Ruth had already been judged and pronounced guilty in the beauty parlors, the backyards and the kitchens of Queens.” The judgement of women as a result of their aesthetic, their habits and their sexuality is central to the understanding of every character in the novel. The people of Queens judge Ruth long before anything happens to the children, assuming that she’s guilty of the most brutal crime imaginable simply because she doesn’t live up to their moral standards.

The delicate threads connecting Ruth and Pete throughout the novel are beautifully explored by Flint, and the connection between the characters displays the remarkable talent of this debut writer. The final third of the novel, in which Ruth’s trial occurs, is one of the most intense pieces of writing I’ve read in a long time – Flint never quite allows the reader to be certain of their own opinion and maintains an air of uncertainty throughout. The conclusion of the novel is just as gripping as the first chapter, and readers are sure to react passionately to the twists and turns of the case.

Without a doubt, the character of Ruth is the shining star of the novel; she’s a complex, sexual and incredibly real character, representative of not only women in the 1960s and the struggles that they faced, but also of women today. Understanding a character like Ruth allows us to understand ourselves and other women with a little more compassion. The complexities of motherhood are incredibly packaged by Flint in a sensitive and emotionally raw manner, providing a far greater insight into not only Ruth, but all mothers; “They knew nothing of guilt. They were not mothers.”

 Holly Miller

Little Deaths is published by Picador