Emma Flint’s debut novel is based on the real-life case of Alice Crimmins who, in 1965, was accused of murdering her young son and daughter. The case has inspired several fictional retellings, including Mary Higgins Clark’s Where Are The Children?
In Flint’s hands, Alice Crimmins becomes Ruth Malone and the gender politics of the case come to the fore. Ruth exposes the paradoxical and hypocritical way in which society views women. In a world where “nobody got time for someone else’s sadness”, Ruth recognises the need to present a polished and presentable exterior for risk of being labelled hysterical and/or undesirable: “She had to keep the wrong part of her, the messy part, hidden.”
But, although society demands this performance from Ruth, it also condemns her for it. Her regard for her own appearance, her fondness for male company, the fact that she tired of the constraints of domesticity – not only are these traits seen as incompatible with her role as a mother, they are signs of her guilt:
‘Bitch did it. No doubt.’ That was a guy with the nose of a drinker and a drooping eyelid that looked like a wink. ‘You seen how she looks coming in and out of the station – face all made up and hair done. She’s never cried for ’em. Not once.’
Flint’s examination of this issue is interesting, but once the novel has made its point, it has nothing else to do but to keep on making it. There is something a little hollow about Little Deaths, despite Flint’s atmospheric depiction of 1960s Queens. Large swathes of the book drag terribly. I think part of the problem is that, most of the time, readers are kept an arm’s length from Ruth. There is the odd striking, beautifully written depiction of her grief, but most of the time Ruth is remote and the novel lacks an emotional core.
This is certainly not supplied by Pete Wonicke, the journalist who becomes fixated on discovering the ‘real Ruth’ beyond the tawdry tabloid headlines he is originally charged to write. His obsession with Ruth is never fully explained and his actions towards the end of the novel are far-fetched to say the least. Indeed, the whole finale verges on daftness.
Overall, whilst there is some interesting meditation on gender politics here, there is little else. A bit of a disappointment, then, but there is enough insight and good writing here to draw me to Flint’s future work.