Something about the dark month of January makes me enjoy getting caught up in a good thriller. Last year I read Fiona Barton's “The Widow” about a missing child and a mysterious woman hovering near the centre of the case. Emma Flint's debut novel “Little Deaths” is similarly about a case involving missing children and a misunderstood woman, but it's also about so much more than that. Ruth Malone is a 26 year old woman who is separated from her husband and raising two children by herself in Queens during the 1960s. One morning she opens the door to her children's room to discover they've vanished. A police investigation gets under way to discover what happened, but the default assumption is that Ruth is at fault. The police and public don't consider her to be a conventional mother. She enjoys drinking. She's promiscuous. She doesn't seem to give a damn about society's opinion of her. She's condemned even before they interview her. Flint gets at the shocking and sexist way moral judgement supersedes fact in this tragic case.
It's fascinating the way the author portrays Ruth's sense of self consciousness. She's scrupulous about her appearance and she feels the process of putting on make up is “the routine that would bring Ruth to life in the mirror.” At the same time, she feels an inward sense of disgust and takes fierce possession of her own habitat and sense of being: “The dirt in the apartment was her dirt, it was her sweat, her smell, her looseness, her leaking wet body that had betrayed her.” This harsh sense of criticism for her bodily functions and surroundings reminded me somewhat of Ottessa Moshfegh's protagonist in her novel “Eileen” but Ruth is more accomplished at appearing beautiful and serene despite inwardly breaking down. She's overcome by grief, but because she doesn't express it in conventional ways it makes people extremely suspicious. More than simply subjecting a grieving mother to endless accusatory interviews, the police shockingly interfere with her personal life contacting potential employers to warn them against hiring Ruth and sabotaging her personal relationships.
Although the reader frequently gets flashes of Ruth's perspective, the story is primarily told through Pete Wonicke, an ambitious young reporter. At first I wished the story would focus more exclusively on the complexity of Ruth's view point, but as the story progressed I saw how essential it was to see it from Pete's perspective. He gradually understands how unfairly Ruth is persecuted and fights for her justice. Not only does he get a clearer understanding of her life, but also the lives of other women forced to live on the margins and who've been horrendously mistreated for going against the grain of social norms. This cleverly makes us question our own assumptions about people based on superficial impressions, ask how much our society has changed in the past fifty years and wonder how much our opinions are guided by inherited misogynist notions. It's a forceful story which skilfully builds a feeling of suspense all the way to its gripping conclusion.