Kate Hamer’s debut novel The Girl in the Red Coat is a psychologically tense novel that calls to mind that darkly disturbing fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood.
In Hamer’s novel a young girl disobeys her mother and wanders off during a day out at a story-telling festival. As the fog rises over the fields and the festival goers begin to hurry home, they pay scant attention to the lone child dressed in a bright red coat. No-one sees Carmel leave the site and get into a car with a man who claims to be the grandfather she has never met.
While keeping her captive in his remote and tumble-down hide-out, he plans his next move. He believes she is special, a girl with a gift for healing. A girl whose powers can make him rich.
Told in the alternating perspectives of the missing daughter and her grieving mother Beth, The Girl in the Red Coat is a novel keeps you hooked.
From Beth we learn that she’d long had a premonition that one day she would lose Carmel. Now it’s just the two of them (her husband Paul left her for a younger woman) she becomes ever more obsessed about keeping a close eye on her daughter. Her need to be protective is resented by her daughter. Carmel loves her mum but just wishes she would give her more freedom.
Beth is right to be afraid. Her daughter is an unusual child, highly imaginative, and intelligent beyond her years but also dreamer, prone to lose all sense of time and of her self while playing in the woods.
Was it just me who saw those absences? When she stood rooted to the spot and her eyes became strange and stony — then as soon as they came, they went. Fugues I began to name them.
Carmel’s sections of the narrative work carry the weight of the narrative since it’s through her we slowly come to understand her abductor’s plans and the girl’s struggle to retain her identity. There’s a race-against-time element to this novel
Child narrators are always tricky to pull off. They can either sound too childish or too mature for their supposed age. Hamer compounds the difficulties by imbuing her child with elevated powers of observation and communication. A few times the narrative comes across as a little unrealistic but the power of the story is so great that such thoughts last only a second.
Both daughter and mother make frequent reference to the fairytale nature of what’s happened to them. Beth wishes she’d kept her daughter “shut away in a fortress or a tower. Locked with a golden key that I would swallow.” Spotting her shadow on the wall beside her captor’s, Carmel muses: “We both look like the paper puppets … and I wonder what story we’d be telling if we were.” She steels herself by thinking: “Sometimes, it’s easier to think of things as stories … If I made these things into stories I could float away from them, and look at them sideways, or like they were happening inside a snow globe.”
Obviously this book has a strong race-against-time element to it. Will Carmel be found? Will mother and daughter ever be reunited in true fairy-tale tradition? Hamer handles the tension and suspense well and if that were all this book had, it would a perfectly enjoyable yarn.
But it’s her depiction of the complicated relationship between mother and daughter that made this novel considerably more appealing for me. Though their relationship had often in the past been tense, in their forced separation they discover the depth of their need for each other. When they see each other again, theirs will be a very different relationship resolves Carmel.
All that I can think is that I wish I was at home with Mum and everything was back to normal. That this wasn’t worth a stupid story about a fairy who has to earn her wings. Or even meeting the real writer. Where are fairies and writers when you need them? If I was with Mum, and everything was OK, I wouldn’t try to get away from her again. I’d stay close to her all the time. I wouldn’t even try looking over the wall at home, not ever.
As time passes and her confidence in her ability to survive diminishes, she still clings to the hope that one day she will be reunited with her mum.
Sometimes I wonder if when I’m dead I’m destined to be looking still. Turned into an owl and flying over the fields at night, swooping over crouching hedges and dark lanes. The smoke from chimneys billowing and swaying from the movement of my wings as I pass through. Or will I sit with her, high up in the beech tree, playing games? Spying on the people who live in our house and watching their comings and goings. Maybe we’ll call out to them and make them jump.
Is there a fairy-tale happy ending for Carmel and Beth? You;ll just have to read the book yourself because on that question, my lips are sealed.
About the book: The Girl in the Red Coat is the debut novel by Kate Hamer. It garnered a lot of positive comment when it was published by Faber and Faber in 2015. Hamer was a finalist in both the Costa Book Award for First Novel and the Dagger Award and the novel was selected as the Wales Book of the Year.
About the author: Kate Hamer comes from Pembrokeshire in Wales. She received a New Writer’s Bursary from Literature Wales to help her finish her novel, She currently lives with her husband in Cardiff. Her second novel The Doll Funeral was published in 2017.
Why I read this book: It was selected by one of the book clubs to which I belong but they postponed the date for the discussion and I couldn’t get to that rescheduled meeting. So the book went back on the shelf and I forgot about it until the end of last month when I was hunting around for some books to take with me on holiday.