This book has one of my favourite covers of any book I’ve read this year. The image is just so powerful and representative of the story, its main character and a moment in the novel in which she is both aware and unaware she is being watched. The whole thing is just perfect and, if I was an author, I’d be jealous. It’s a thing of beauty.
Based on a well-known and notorious New York murder case from the 1960s (although names and some events have been changed), Little Deaths explores what it means to be a woman and a mother when the odds are stacked against you.
Ruth Malone is a single mother in 1960s Queens, battling her husband Frank in a bitter custody dispute. She’s also nowhere near the idea of a ‘perfect mother’: she’s glamorous, she drinks, she smokes, she has boyfriends. She’s not always a good mum, either. But when her children disappear literally overnight, her world is turned upside down- even if she doesn’t show it to those around her. Refusing to show any emotion to the men who watch her any move for any sign of guilt or hysteria, she ultimately signs a confession in the minds of a police force and a society desperate to punish any woman who deviates from what is considered ‘normal’. Sure, she has her champions- her husband and a young male reporter with an obsessively sexual saviour complex- but it’s not enough to save her. It’s never been enough.
The novel is fascinating, an exploration of the Madonna/whore complex in the Beatles era and I definitely felt there were Scarlet Letter vibes too. To see a woman try desperately to hold it together when she’s been damned by everyone else- even her own mother!- whilst breaking down in private is truly heartbreaking. At the same time, we see Ruth through the eyes of rookie reporter Pete Wonicke, who at once represents the case as seen through the eyes of the media and also the possessiveness of a patriarchal society. (He’s a bit creepy at times.) This is not a classic whodunnit but it does have elements of that, as well as feeling a bit noir, too. And the ending will wind you, I promise.
As a huge true crime fan, I loved this- but I’ve also forced it onto non-crime buff friends too, who have enjoyed it too. And why shouldn’t they? It’s one of the most gripping novels about the juggling of women’s personal and public identities I’ve read in a long, long time.