Kate Hamer’s The Girl in the Red Coat stands out among the growing number of Girls in book titles not simply thanks to its striking red cover. Open that up and you’ll discover not one but two truly engrossing stories, narrated in turn by a mother and her daughter, and blending modern-day anxieties and a nightmare situation with fairytale-like qualities to make this one girl that’s every bit as memorable as that titular red coat she wears.
Eight-year-old Carmel has always been different – sensitive, distracted, with an heartstopping tendency to go missing. Her mother Beth, newly single, worries about her daughter’s strangeness, especially as she is trying to rebuild a life for the two of them on her own.
When she takes Carmel for an outing to a local festival, her worst fear is realised: Carmel disappears into the crowd. Unable to accept the possibility that her daughter might be gone for good, Beth embarks on a mission to find her. Meanwhile, Carmel begins an extraordinary and terrifying journey of her own. But do the real clues to Carmel’s disappearance lie in the otherworldly qualities her mother had only begun to guess at?
Kate Hamer’s story of Beth and Carmel appealed to me initially because she takes us behind the scenes when a child disappears. We’re used to seeing the police appeals, the tearful parents, the posters, the neighbours being doorstepped by the press, the members of the public joining in searches across tracts of land, the police divers working their way through rivers, canals or lakes. What we don’t see (and for very good reason) is what happens when the parents go home, either together or separately, and close their front door(s). How they fill their days, or don’t. What goes through their minds. Nor do we see or hear much about what happens to the child who disappears, unless they give interviews after their ordeal is over or there’s a book written either by them, if they’re found safe and well, or sometimes by their parent(s), if not. The beauty of The Girl in the Red Coat is that Kate Hamer doesn’t just give us Beth’s story, that of the mother waiting at home for news, desperately trying to balance hope, guilt, love and a form of grieving, but also that of Carmel in all her confusion and struggle to stay true to herself, distinguish between truth and lies, and find her way home.
What makes this book is not only what Kate Hamer is doing in drawing back the curtain and showing us what’s going on, but the way in which she does it. She’s achieved that tricky balance between her two narrators, both of whom have strong voices, which makes the reader equally interested in the parallel stories. And while rooting her story very much in our brash modern world, with all its inherent threats and dangers, she’s sprinkled in some familiar fairytale elements, perhaps to reassure us that sometimes love and hope win through and if we keep faith with the characters, we can help them get there.
Carmel’s red coat helps single her out: it tells us she’s a special child, and maybe not only to her parents; it also reminds us of Little Red Riding Hood and her dangerous path through the woods, although if we know Red from TV’s Once, we might hope she has her wits about her. Red can mean stop, although Carmel rarely does, and it can mean danger. On a more basic level, Beth has Carmel wear the coat because of her propensity to wander off. It helps her mother pick her out easily in a crowd, something my mother used to do with my brother but by making him wear checked trousers!
In fairytales, just as in real life, it’s not always easy to know who to trust and who the wolves are, sometimes they’ll hide, but more often they’re out in the open, in plain sight but wearing a disguise to trick us. As Carmel makes her way through the fair, and later her own variation of the enchanted woods, she has to work out who to trust and befriend, what people want from her and when or if to give in, and by how much. What you can do is put your trust in Kate Hamer to see you safely through without the need to leave behind breadcrumbs: The Girl in the Red Coat is an assured debut, and an exciting first step along Kate Hamer’s path as a writer.
The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer is published by Faber & Faber. It’s available in hardback and paperback and as an ebook and audiobook from Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop) and Waterstones. You can follow Kate on Twitter. I received a review copy of the book through NetGalley but bought a hardback copy at local bookshop event and bought two further copies for the giveaway below.
I have two signed copies of The Girl in the Red Coat to giveaway. Leave a comment below to be in with the chance of winning one!