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. Read more