It seems that the spirit of my holiday in Cyprus has not only stayed with me through Christos Tsiolkas’ short story collection which started there and only recently finished (because I wanted it to last forever) this week. Also, for some unknown reason, my review of Kate Hamer’s debut novel The Girl in the Red Coat which I thought I posted after I got back has been sat in my drafts for four months. Oops. As regular passersby to this blog will know I hate flying and needed a book that would have me hooked at 30,000 feet. So I grabbed this debut novel as from what I had heard it was a thriller meets Little Red Riding Hood and would keep my nerves at bay and hold my attention for the four hour flight, which indeed it did. So with a quick tweak of the introduction which you are now reading (how ‘Meta’ that feels) here are my thoughts, just a little later than intended.
‘There’s been nothing for weeks,’ said Paul eventually. ‘No new leads, nothing.’
Leads – those invisible wires that could take us to her. Or Hansel and Gretel’s trail of breadcrumbs. The wind seemed to have scattered them and time snipped them off. He was right, there’d been nothing.
For anyone who has had children, or has looked after them, the biggest fear when you take them anywhere for a day out is that you will lose them. Hamer plays on this instinct early on in The Girl With The Red Coat when, and I hope this isn’t giving too much away, Beth takes her daughter, Carmel, on a day out and loses her in a maze. The sense of foreboding, unease, tension and fear that Hamer builds up in Beth as she searches madly for her daughter is palpable, I was utterly tense (far more than I was about being on the plane whilst reading it) for what felt like forever though was actually only a few pages. This is the power of Hamer’s writing and yet it is a mere foreshadowing of what she puts you through when Carmel is abducted by a man mere months later at a storytelling festival, the aftermath of which becomes the crux of the novel.
The Girl in the Red Coat is, quite literally in two ways, a book of two halves. Firstly there is the way that it is told. Chapters alternate, though sometimes one voice will take over for a few chapters, between Beth and Carmel from the very start. On the one hand we get the mothers view of her fears for her child when there isn’t any danger, the situation that she and her daughter have found themselves before she goes missing, then the horrors, followed by the dreadful sense of loss (and clinging to hope) when she is gone. How do you carry on?
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.
We then also get the complete opposite perspective from Carmel. She is clearly angry and unsure why her parents have split up, which Beth relates to us, before she goes missing. She is also finding her mother’s protective nature cloying and annoying until, she believes, her mother has had an accident and the grandfather she has never met comes to her aide. We then follow her on the journey that he takes her which, without giving too much away, takes her to a crumbling old house before heading off to another land and what can only be described as a cult. I shall say no more on the plot, however as it goes on Carmel starts to get a sense that something isn’t right and we follow her as she questions things and the repercussions of those questions.
I lean back feeling sleepy and trying not to be. 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.
The Girl in the Red Coat is an absolutely packed novel. One of the many reasons I love reading debuts are that they do tend to be buzzing with ideas and this one certainly is. Here there are tropes and the themes in as much abundance as there are plot twists along the way. As you read on it becomes a mix of thriller and fairytale which is what I was really hoping it was going to be from what I had heard prior to picking it up. You know I love a good fairytale, and indeed a good thriller, so I loved the nods to fairytales as you read on; the title of the book, the crumbling castle Beth is taken to, the evil ogre (who never becomes pantomime which I appreciated, he is just an odious scary but very real villain) you just worry and wonder if there will be a fairytale ending?
Occasionally I did find there was a bit too much going on, which leads to the second reason that for me this was a book of two halves. The first half for me was some brilliant writing of apprehension, brooding tension and nerves. The second half, once we go abroad, whilst still oddly fascinating felt much less real to me. You are probably all incredulously thinking ‘but what fairytales feel real?’ and you would be right yet this isn’t a fairytale all over, it is also a contemporary drama and a thriller/mystery. It was also the section when Carmel’s ‘sensitivity’, which is hinted at in the first half, comes to the fore. I can’t discuss this more here for fear of spoilers again, but maybe in the comments below. The only way I can describe it is like two very different books had suddenly been merged together in the middle. Once I was in the swing of the second half of the book I was off again, it was just a slight jarring on that initial switch, the spell being broken briefly in between.
Whilst I did have a few quibbles here and there, they didn’t stop my overall enjoyment of the novel and indeed the aforementioned plane journey quite literally flew by. I then finished it off the next morning at the hotel before breakfast, so it was quite literally a two sitting read. This is because of Hamer’s writing, which is wonderful and I found particularly strong through Beth’s eyes where the tensions and the emotions of the novel lay for me. (This is probably because I don’t tend to like children narrators and nothing to do with the drawing of Carmel’s character.) Hamer can certainly create an intriguing cast of characters and spin a good yarn. The Girl in the Red Coat is an unusual and brimming debut, I will be intrigued and look forward to whatever she writes next.