In the summer of 1965, two young children go missing in Queens while in the care of their mother. After an investigation is mounted and the search begins, both children are found dead. Neighbors speculate, whisper, that the mother, the enthralling, intoxicating yet secretive Ruth Malone is to blame. Soon the police and the press are quick to jump to convenient conclusions but is Ruth really capable of murder?
It's no mere coincidence that the title of the book derives from the french saying 'la petite mort', a euphemism that refers specifically to likening the sensation of orgasm to death. This is, primarily, a novel about sexuality and femininity; how women are punished for being confident in their overt sexuality told through the misty haze of a noir murder mystery. Interestingly, the novel is adapted from the real life case of two small children disappearing then being found dead later in which the mother was arrested, after two long years in the public eye. Ruth embodies this and is turned into a femme fatale monster in order to please the newspapers and the media that is dictated by a patriarchal society, she is punished for not living up to a preconceived stereotype and she is punished for being a bad mother. The streets bustle with rich imagery and descriptions, american colloquialisms dominate the language convincingly that entices the reader into the mystery; I truly felt like I could have been sat in an old fashioned American diner having fries and a root beer float.
Perhaps the biggest mystery of all is uncovering who Ruth Malone really is. The narrative is that of third person, an unknown 'other' observing everything from a seemingly detached position that puts the reader in a firmly neutral setting. Ruth chain smokes, flaunts her promiscuous nature, drinks excessively and never expresses grief in a way that everyone expects. She hides that part of herself and rarely does she show it. Flint uses this anonymity of character to capture the blatant misogyny of the police who are convinced she has murdered her children in order to prevent her ex-husband Frank from gaining custody of them. Ruth is placed upon a pedestal in her position of a woman and Flint exploits the horrific nature in which the media and misogyny-lead detectives are so quick to push her down.
Moreover the narrative alternates between Ruth and a young journalist Pete Wonicke, allowing us insight to an outsider's perspective. In true Hitchcockian style, Pete becomes obsessed with Ruth in an unnerving voyeuristic manner, following her every move, waiting outside her apartment, "He watched her watching the women and children... as he gazed up at her, she stretched sideways so that she rested one shoulder and her hip against the window". Ruth becomes the unattainable object of desire for Pete, who is himself a physical manifestation of male desire. She is watched and watches throughout, she is subject to the patriarchal male gaze and in return he is blinded by the sexual prowess that ultimately becomes her undoing.
Flint packs emotional punches throughout the novel, from the grotesque discoveries early on to the riveting trial that takes up the last third of the book, Ruth's grief is as raw and as unrestrained as one can imagine, but always she stands tall and composes herself, to be seen as strong and determined. Throughout the many accusations she is faced, she simply maintains "They knew nothing of guilt. They were not mothers." At times the alternating narrative can be a little distracting, such as the one sided interview answers that take place in the early chapters but it's easy to forgive when the characters, environments and dialogue are so well thought out, so cleverly researched and so rewarding. As for the ending, some may find it predictable (myself included) but it fits the formula that Flint is creating, and it acts as the final sting in the tail of Ruth's never-ending punishment.
Like what Emma Cline did for women for 'The Girls', Emma Flint uses the mask of murder to write a phenomenal debut novel that speaks out about the performance of femininity and womanhood, how now society condemns flawed, angry women for not living up to their ideals. Haunting and thoroughly complex, Emma Flint is set for big things.