You know how sometimes the voice just leaps off the page and grabs you in certain books? That’s what happened to me on the first page of The Girl In the Red Coat.
I’d mentally bookmarked this book as one to read after The Observer picked the author, Kate Hamer, as one of their New Faces of Fiction 2015 back in early January, and on Twitter there was a real buzz about it. But when it came to it, I had a curious sense of resistance. Another book about a missing child.
But this book is nothing like I thought. It is so much more.
The Girl in the Red Coat is the story of Beth, a single mother, and her eight year old daughter, Carmel. She has a fractious relationship with her ex, Paul, who has a new partner Lucy. Having had sporadic contact, he suddenly appears after five months to take Carmel out. In addition, Beth no longer speaks to her parents and Carmel doesn’t see them any more, but we don’t know why. These fractured relationships Hamer describes are so convincing and well drawn. There is none of the ‘perfect lives are shattered’ theme here.
On the day Carmel goes missing, Beth wants her to stay close, Carmel feels tied to her, straining at the leash. Dressed in a red coat, she keeps an eye out for that flash of scarlet as she browses the bookstall at a story teller’s fair. We know it is coming, because we have been told from the start, but the whole sequence detailing when she actually disappears, is brilliantly written, capturing that rising tide of hysterical panic, when time seems to slow down. The circumstances in which she is abducted are chillingly plausible; she is taken by a man posing as her estranged grandfather, pretending her mother has had an accident who says he will drive her to the hospital.
The narrative is split between Beth’s point of view and Carmel’s and this, for me, is where the real strength of the book lies. I think you know when a child narrator’s voice is authentic or not and this one was utterly captivating. The ways she sees the world, the similes she uses, are all just perfect. When she finds comfort in the familiarity of the 57 Varieties label on a can of baked beans in her strange and bewildering new surroundings, I was floored for a moment.
Beth and Carmel go on their separate journeys both literally and emotionally and yet neither, particularly Carmel, took the journey I was expecting. The passage of time is beautifully rendered. It was hard not to just rush to the end to see how it resolved.
That push-me-pull-you mother and daughter relationship is beautifully expressed throughout, capturing all its nuances and complexities, something I find endlessly fascinating. I remember vividly feeling like Carmel (and getting lost for hours and hours at Badminton Horse Trials when I got to be driven round the grounds in a police car ) and also now with my own daughter who has had a succession of red coats because she wanted to be like Little Red Riding Hood and I wanted to be able to spot her on the far side of the park. The time I lost her on Witterings Beach is still the longest twenty minutes of my life. It’s that universal struggle of how you balance keeping them safe with not letting anxiety rule your life. And moreover, theirs.
There is so much to think about in this book, the way different people handle grief differently, the apportioning of blame, the way friends rally round, or say stupid but well intentioned things, about moving on and not moving on. What we will, if we were parted, remember of each other.
Thanks to Faber & Faber for my review copy.