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A kaleidoscope of all things dark

Little Deaths By Emma Flint

Women are judged as much today as they were then and that’s the conundrum that the book explores.

WE are the sum of the choices we make. So when Ruth Malone is accused of killing her children, it's her life choices that come back to haunt her. She's a cocktail waitress, lover and mother all rolled into one, struggling to make ends meet and fighting for custody of her children. But not everyone sees Ruth for what she is.

Most are quick to judge - her low-cut dresses, her perfectly made up face and a string of boyfriends make her a prime suspect when her children go missing one night.

Closely watching her movements are investigating officer Sergeant Devlin, who is convinced that Ruth is behind the disappearances, and Pete Wonicke, a rookie reporter. Soon enough the children turn up, dead, and Ruth's life spirals into a dark abyss as she is branded a murderer.

In what can be classified as a work of noir fiction, Emma Flint's debut novel, Little Deaths, is haunting. Dead children evoke wild rage and the deepest of sympathies. Add to this mix the blatant name-calling and gender bias that Ruth is subjected to because of how she chooses to lead her life, and you're left with a woman who is, at once, both the victim and the perpetrator.

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Flint's writing is as gripping as it is descriptive. She goes to great lengths to describe seemingly simple actions like eating a meal. "Pete watched, fascinated, as Devlin shovelled forkfuls of food, as he chewed open mouthed, the mass of brown and red churning and glistening on his tongue before he swallowed," she writes. "They ate in silence. Then Devlin dabbed his mouth with a napkin, reached for the toothpick and worked at his teeth."

Much of Flint's style of writing is what carries the book, though the engaging prose does occasionally lose its grip on the narrative. What we know at the start is pretty much what we know till the end.

But with each page, Flint adds a new layer to her lead characters, a new detail, a peek into the lives and minds of those affected by the Malone murders. She also tackles very real, almost present-day gender issues though the story is set in the sixties - 1965 in Queens, New York - which makes the setting a relatable one. Ruth is unabashed in her ways, but so are her neighbours and society when it comes to passing judgement. This leaves her misunderstood and vulnerable to stereotyping.

My favourite passage from the book is one where Ruth is in the courtroom facing a room full of men and questions and thinking to herself. "He knew nothing about coming home from a twelve-hour shift, having held the image of their faces in front of you the whole time, holding onto the sweet smell of their skin as you wiped vomit from your shoes, as you picked cigarette butts out of your half-full glass," Flint writes.

"And then stepping through the door and hearing the noise of them: the screams and shrieks and the endless demands, for food and for attention, and feeling that just the fact of them - their spilling, their pulling and grabbing and needing - made you want to hand the sitter all the money you had in your purse and beg her to stay."

She continues: "This man had no idea about any of this. None of these men did. They got paid men's wages and had wives to deal with the noise and the mess, with Jimmy's problems at school, with little Susie who wouldn't eat her vegetables, with the baby who just wouldn't stop crying. They knew nothing of guilt. They were not mothers."

Women are judged as much today as they were then and that's the conundrum that the book explores. Ruth stands for every independent woman who knows true liberation. She tries very little to convince people about her choices and pays a heavy price for it.

At the heart of Little Deaths is a story about feminism, about a maligned mother looking for love outside her marriage in a society that won't let her, and about losing what she loved most: her babies.

For a debut novel, Little Deaths shows great promise. There is poignant writing coupled with keenly observed detail that allow you to experience Ruth's surroundings - you can almost smell the bars she frequents, feel the make-up on her skin and hear her children giggle. These aspects of the book make it worth your while. As writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie aptly writes in her book We Should All Be Feminists: "The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognising how we are."

That is precisely the point that Emma Flint drives home, served as a dark concoction made up of equal parts treachery, obsession and grief.