Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Girl in the Red Coat.
Hamer taps into the magical land of an eight-year-old girl’s enchantment with fantasy in this compelling tale of a child gone missing in Norfolk England and her mother’s fear that she has caused her daughter’s disappearance. The relationship between mother and daughter has grown difficult since Beth and Paul’s divorce, a rejected woman’s slow recovery and secret fear of inadequacy when protecting her daughter in the world. Beth’s self-doubts contribute to the tension,
and Carmel’s imagination becomes the door to escape, blithely treading the landscape between reality and fiction, slipping into the borderless territory of her own thoughts.
A dreamer, Carmel’s inclinations are sometimes at war with practical realities.
One such fateful moment provides an opportunity to separate girl from mother that will haunt them both. They have arrived at a story festival, Carmel wearing her new red coat, mother and daughter moving through a place where fairies and giants come to life. Beth is clinging to a resistant Carmel, who wants to see everything and has grown impatient with her mother’s demand to hold hands. The milling crowd grows dense, a heavy fog slipping into the festival grounds like a malevolent spell, when Beth’s worst nightmare comes true: she loses Carmel, who falls--like Alice--down a rabbit hole where a mother cannot follow.
In prose evoking the fanciful territory of childhood (Carmel’s chapters) and a frantic search for a beloved daughter (Beth’s chapters), Hamer speaks the language of both in a beautiful, heartbreaking drama of innocence and tragedy. It is appropriate, then, that the bright light of day be obscured by a creeping fog that makes seeing impossible, abysmally dark when Beth must find Carmel: “I looked for that flash of red and it was gone.” Red becomes the only color in a bleak landscape of grey and black, the color linking mother and daughter in memory, even the red shoes Carmel loved--but they couldn’t afford--shoes Beth buys later: “While I had them she couldn’t walk away from me completely.”
Time slides sideways as the novel shifts between Beth’s waking nightmare and the strangers that inhabit Carmel’s world after the wrenching separation at the storytelling festival. Hamer never loses her grip on the emotional thread between Beth and Carmel, from the agonizing emptiness Beth must endure post-disappearance to Carmel’s life with others, absent the comfort of home and family. Beth has cause to regret her obsession with harm,
when fear is all that’s left, “my panic in the brick of the building that was made hour by hour, of events--standing there for all time instead of crumbling into memory.” After the small rebellion, resisting her mother’s tight grasp in a crowd of people, Carmel pays dearly for this fit of pique, her world assuming an entirely new shape.
The chapters alternate between realities, tension building with the passage of time. Beth cannot bear the present
and fears the future, horrified of becoming a “whiskey smelling” woman “baying at tragedy like a half-starved dog.” She survives in tiny increments with precise, intentional actions. Though the subject of The Girl in the Red Coat is difficult, loving mother and spirited daughter are richly drawn, one comforted by unexpected relationships forged in unbearable grief, the other clinging to memories, the color red a precious link in a life transformed, her name a silent mantra she refuses to relinquish. The ancient magic of stories and fairy tales infuses the tale, even the tragic trajectory of its protagonists, a lost girl’s trek through the wilderness and a mother’s yearning heart that never gives up hope.