He knew nothing about leaving your kids home alone or with a teenage sitter while you went out to work eight hours on your feet in a pair of heels that rubbed, serving drinks to assholes who thought they were buying the right to paw you with every round He knew nothing about leaving your sleeping children while you went to meet a man who would pay you for your company because your daughter needed shoes. He know nothing about sending your kids to bed on half-empty stomachs, trying to fill them up with water, adding a drop of whisky to make them sleep – because if you let them eat, there’d be nothing for breakfast and your dead-beat husband’s checks kept bouncing.
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 a half-full glass. 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. Or if there was no money, or no sitter, just walking out anyway because you were so damn tired, and you just needed a little time alone. A little peace.
This man had no idea about any of this. None of these men did. They got paid men’s wages and they 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.
Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction long list nominee “Little Deaths” is part crime novel, part character study. Ruth Malone is a young mother working as a cocktail waitress in 1960s Queens. Ruth is icy, composed, plastic. While the reader sees the turmoil of her life – excessive drinking, desperate affairs with strange men, maternal fatigue – Ruth shows nothing to the outside world. Wearing revealing clothes and always putting on her face before facing the day, Ruth is desperate to be looked at, terrified of ever being seen. Her plastic veneer by which she is judged – perfect makeup and hair, no emotion – is her armor against a world to which she doesn’t really belong.
“Little Deaths” is the story, set in flashbacks, of Ruth’s undoing. From the opening lines, we are told that she is now an inmate, though her crime is only later revealed and the truth of that crime is delivered only at the book’s end.
“On the rare nights that she sleeps, she is back in the skin of the woman from before. Then: she rarely slept neat in a nightgown, pillows plumped, face shining with cold cream. She sometimes woke in a rumpled bed with a snoring figure beside her; more often she woke alone on the sofa with near-empty bottles and near-full ashtrays, her skin clogged with stale smoke and yesterday’s makeup, her body tender, her mind empty. She would sit up, wincing, aware of the ache in her neck and of the sad, sour taste in her mouth. Now she wakes, not with the thickness of a headache or the softness of a blurred night behind her, but with forced clarity. Her days begin with a bell, with harsh voices, clanging metal, yelling. With the throat-scarping smells of bleach and urine. There’s no room in these mornings for memories.”
Ruth is a woman without agency, looking for solace in a bottle and a man – any man. That trait, alone, makes her a tough character to like. Her struggles with motherhood, marriage, and misogyny are sympathetic and relatable on their surface, but Ruth herself just wasn’t. “Little Deaths” is full of flat characters, and though Ruth’s stoicism is key to the novel’s plot and premise, it is delivered to such an extreme that it left me cold and unengaged. The only sympathetic characters are a flash in the narrative, come and gone in short shrift, literal victims to the plot. Flint has her protagonist playing a type – the ice queen who, we are told, has unknown depths. But if, through the entirety of the novel, those depths remain unknown and unbelievable, as they did here, what remains is a fairly hollow and forgettable story.