This is another of those novels which is an uncomfortable read. What kept me reading? The characters. I wanted to know what really happened. But of course this is fiction and characters don’t always tell the truth, only their version of the truth. Little Deaths by Emma Flint is an accomplished debut, as I read I could tell she had got under the skin of her characters.
There is an intriguing set-up, we first hear Ruth’s voice. She is in prison. We don’t know why, but she compares her life now with her life before. When she was a single mum with two small children. As I read, I felt a shiver down my back: where are her children now? Starting the story with Ruth in prison surely gives away the ending, doesn’t it? Not really. This is a nuanced tale of trial by jury in 1960s America [though until the Sixties were mentioned, it seemed to be set in a curiously non-time specific period] where prejudices about women could wrongly influence outcomes, where social pre-conceptions coloured witness statements, and hearsay evidence seemed admissible if the accused was disliked. It is a tale of presumed guilt, and it should make all readers stop and think.
Ruth, separated from her husband Frank, works as a cocktail waitress to support her children. It is a hard life when Frank’s support cheques bounce and the children don’t want to eat the only food she has to feed them. Ruth puts on a persona when she leaves the house, it is her way of coping. She is a proud woman, who doesn’t want to admit her struggles or to ask for help. She is attractive and uses make-up and tight clothes to attract boyfriends who give her cash, cash which helps her to survive. And then one morning when she goes to the children’s bedroom, Cindy and Frank Junior are not there. The police questioning starts, and the make-up, short skirts and lack of friendly neighbours come back to haunt her.
We are told Ruth’s story, first by Ruth herself, and also by Pete Wonicke, a young journalist who reports on the case. As the months go on and no-one is arrested we see Ruth’s anger and helplessness in the face of police who wait to convict her rather than investigate other clues. Meanwhile, Pete becomes obsessed with Ruth and with proving her innocence.
This novel stayed with me for days afterwards. It made me question how quick we are to judge others by what we see on the outside, how easy it is to allow our prejudices to dominate our views on life. Sometimes the guilty-looking person will be guilty. But sometimes they won’t.
You will have to read right to the end to find out if Ruth is guilty or not guilty.
The novel was inspired by a real life case, read more about this in The Alice Crimmins Case by Kenneth Gross.
‘Little Deaths’ by Emma Flint [UK: Picador] Buy at Amazon
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LITTLE DEATHS by @flint_writes #bookreview via @SandraDanby http://wp.me/p5gEM4-2iW