‘Little Deaths’ as a title is ingenious, drawing you to the heart of this excellent novel. ‘Little Deaths’ because it is the murder of two children which sets off the chain of events which their mother, Ruth, must endure. ‘Little Deaths’ because this is a literal translation of the French slang for orgasm – ‘Les Petites Morts’. Sex and death.
A book I loved last year was Ottessa Moshfegh’s ‘Eileen’, which came to us undercover, hiding a unique character study within the dressings of ‘noir’ fiction. ‘Little Deaths’ comes at us full in the face, unapologetically using the tropes of the ‘noir’ novel to tell its tale. Like ‘Mildred Pierce and ‘Sunset Boulevard, ‘Little Deaths’ starts at the end: Ruth Malone is in prison, counting the days to her freedom, dwelling on what brought her to this place:
‘So that was how it began. With a locked door to an empty room. With her running out into the street, a set of sweat-slicked keys held tightly in her hand, pressed hard into her palm. With her circling the block calling their names.’
While there is a mystery to solve, this is a study in the destruction of a woman. A woman who won’t play to the game and be what society expects of her. Separated from her husband, Ruth is a lonely woman raising two children and looking for a little joy in life, a bit of passion. She works in bars and enjoys sex. She wants to look good, to look sexy. In short, she is seen as ‘the very picture of a scandalous woman’. And for this she must be punished. We see how the print media and the police collude to bring her down, punishing her for not being what they want her to be. But Ruth is determined, because she knows they ‘…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. (They) 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. (They) knew 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.’ As the novel points out, some of the harshest critics of women like Ruth are other women, and ‘Eileen’ would certainly be one of them:
‘…a young woman came to visit her perpetrator – her rapist, I assumed. She was a pretty girl who had a tortured flamboyance, and at the time I thought all attractive women were loose, sex kittens, tramps, floozies.’
It is a tale as old as time, especially for a woman who appears to have committed that most heinous of crimes: filicide – the killing of a child by a parent. Society considers this act, when committed by the mother, to be one of the most unnatural of acts and unforgivable of crimes and one which must be punished above all others. Consider the case of Myra Hindley. We know she was complicit with the terrible torture and murder of a number of children (at around the same time just before that in which ‘Little Deaths’ is set). Ian Brady may have been the psychopathic brain behind the crime but it is Hindley who will always bear the brunt of society’s hatred, because as a woman she is seen as having the ‘natural role’ of creator, mother and nurturer. To go against this is seen as offending society and nature. It is also no coincidence that the police photograph etched on a generation’s consciousness is one in which Hindley shows no remorse, in fact there is more than a hint of petulance. The book I am currently reading, ‘The Witchfinder’s Sister’ by Beth Underdown also touches on this issue. Set in 1645, this novel covers the crimes of Matthew Hopkins, the notorious witch hunter:
‘Matthew took these women and he killed them, but without once breaking the law. He took women who did not want their own children, women who wanted other people’s, and , at least at first, there was hardly a murmur to prevent him. For a woman is brought up ti believe that children are her life’s work – to make them and feed them and kiss their hurts. But what happens if you cannot have children? If you have too many? If you have them, and they cannot protect you? If you have them and they die? If you weep for your loss too much or not enough – that is when folk begin to wonder of it is your fault, your misfortune.’
But this analogy isn’t stretching the point too far. In her terrific books ‘Misogynies’ and ‘The Public Woman’ Joan Smith writes about the position of women in society and touches on the view of woman as witch. In her essay on the Yorkshire Ripper, she talks about how the police and media’s blatant sexism in viewing women as whores allowed the Ripper’s deadly spree to carry on far longer than it should have. And, at the end of the day, it was his wife who had to carry some of the blame:
‘He worshipped her. She dominated him. Both hid their thoughts behind a mask of reserve.
There were tantrums and tears. But never in public. Only behind the respectable faced of their Bradford home did the mask drop. Then Sonia, shy and frail to the world outside, would often become the nagging wife. And Sutcliffe, pent-up fury would build to a destructive force.’ (Daily Mirror 23/05/1981)
If was as if Sonia held some sort of power over Sutcliffe, some sort of magical force. Fast forward 26 years and in ‘The Witches of Perugia’, Smith makes clear the analogy with the case of the murder of Meredith Kercher and how, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary both the police and media constantly hunted and taunted Amanda Knox, determined to prove her guilt:
‘Scampering around Perugia, (Knox) was only doing what liberated athletic, self-absorbed young American girls do: having fun. And that fun – boisterous, brazen maybe – was read by Italian men like Rudy (the young man who would eventually serve a shockingly short sentence of the crime) and the others, including Mignini (Chief Prosecutor) and the police, the only context by which they had to understand female behaviour: she was the witch, the deliberate player of men.‘ Nina Burleigh, ‘Fatal Gift’
There is little difference between this scenario and the witch trials of old when women were put into a ducking stool: if they drowned they were innocent, if they lived they were guilty and would burn. Lose lose.
Flint writes clearly and effectively, producing a cast of characters which carry the novel to its inevitable conclusion. She makes Ruth a truly convincing character, one who never quite believes or takes notice of what is happening around her until it is too late; Flint makes Ruth a character contemporaneous with her time: she is a ‘natural’ feminist in that she doesn’t theorise or proselytize about the position of women like her – she simply reacts to her situation, a reaction built around anger, frustration and downright unfairness.
Finally, going back to my comparison with ‘Eileen’, one trait both books share is a wonderful highlighting of body odours. Compare the lines one from ‘Little Deaths’, one from ‘Eileen’:
‘Sometimes she could smell herself – that ripe, yellow odor that she still thinks of as peculiar to her, and that embarrassed her on those days that she woke up with company. Like a bitch on heat ain’t ya, honey?
‘Although I was generally paranoid about how I smelled – if my sweat stank, if my breath was as bad as my mouth tasted – I never wore perfume, and I always preferred the scentless soaps and lotions. Nothing calls more attention to one’s odor than a fragrance meant to mask it. At home alone with my father, I was in charge of the laundry, a duty I inherited by default and which I rarely honoured. But when I did, the aroma of his soiled garments was so distressing. I often gagged and coughed an dry-heaved when I sniffed them. It was the smell of something like soured milk, sweet and laced so strongly with the perfume of gin, it turns my stomach just to think of it now.’
I love this display of people as physical human beings with smells and secretions, things which these days are – whatever your gender – being scraped out of our consciousness alongside all traces of body hair, like dirty little secrets – as if, as a society we wish to revert to being hairless, scentless, hormoneless children.