The Girl in the Red Coat
Kate Hamer
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Buy *The Girl in the Red Coat* by Kate Hameronline

The Girl in the Red Coat
Kate Hamer
Melville House
336 pages
February 2016
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Girl in the Red Coat.

Unfolding in the voices of Beth, a young mother, and her eight-year-old daughter, Carmel, Hamer presents a fictional world that seems at first like a dark and threatening place. Combining a bleak, dreamlike quality with the lyricism of poetry, Hamer menace crouches between the lines of neat, angular prose. Through Beth's voice, we learn how Carmel suddenly disappeared into the fog on Christmas 1999 at a local children’s storytelling festival. Where the spring wind blows through the back door and anything seems possible, Carmel is bundled up in her red duffel coat, her face striped with light and dark, “flickering on and off like at the end of a spool of film.”

Carmel is spirited away by an old man with a crumbling face and round glasses who says that he’s her “grandfather”. The real tragedy, however, is how Beth is left on her own, learning to cope with the grief and loss. The novel opens with Beth remembering how Carmel was once lost in a maze, the smell dark and sweet, “this little girl with red tights who turned the corner.” Beth dreams of walking around in circles in which the maze has faded to a distant memory, and her best friend, Alice, tells her how Carmel had “a channel to God.”

From the giant tents to the big book to the crowds with the performers on stilts and the cold mist, Beth goes over what happened many times: “I was fated for it to run and run in a tape that as soon as it ends rewinds back to the beginning to start again.” Hamer captures the interior life of Beth’s initial terror and loss--shouting until her voice is hoarse, her frantic search of the fairground which leads her back to the trestle table, how half-empty, where she last saw Carmel. As the fog laces the air, a tide of terror washes over Beth. Her only help comes from the stilts man, who is part of the organization.

Willing herself to see the bright little spot of red waiting, Beth's time gets jumbled up. At the police station, it is clear nothing is right as Beth’s brain keeps veering off on steep, panic-stricken tangents. While the reports are filed, searches are organized, and posters and flyers are sent out (along with fundraising efforts to put adverts in the press), Beth goes on a door-to-door search while ex-husband Paul retreats further and further into his own private heartache. Unable to comfort each other, the confrontation soon turns violent as Paul attempts to push as much of his grief into Beth as possible. During the ensuing weeks and months, Beth can’t rise above the wave of guilt that it she is to blame for her daughter’s disappearance.

While one of the pivotal plot twists (switching from the UK to the US) stretched credibility for me, I loved how Hamer built upon the precise nature of Carmel’s view of her kidnappers--her pain, her fear and dread--and of her particular experiences, from her initial days housed in a strange, dilapidated mansion to when she’s taken on the road in a beat-up truck with her two wards, Dorothy and Grandpa. As “bits of yesterday” come back to her in flashes--the black, shiny face of the man with the “owl eyes” who jumped out of nowhere, Carmel tries through her eight-year-old eyes to understand everything that’s happened. Later, Dorothy’s twins, Silver and Melody, offer Carmel companionship of sorts, while dark-skinned Dorothy cuts her hair short and gives her ice-cream dresses in a feeble attempt to look after her.

Perhaps there is no better example than late in the book when Hamer, by way of grief-stricken Beth, leads us on a journey to Cromer Beach in a scene that is as sad and as harrowing as anything that has come before. Here Beth seeks to become just another bit of useless flotsam, “to be smashed apart in the overpowering sea of circumstance.” After all of these months, Beth remains haunted by “a yawning vortex” with colored clues: the crayons, the red shoes, the men on trains, and the glittering skirt of a storyteller as he “whirls around her day and night.”

Disturbing, haunting and lyrical, Hamer’s story has real poignancy. A teenage Carmel is keenly aware that she has missed her chance at family happiness. As she tries frantically to remember her missing mum and dad, her grandpa attempts to dress her up and show her about like something from a circus. Beth’s journey through the dark underside of grief takes on an almost poetic, fairytale musing as she attempts to mix life and loss with the power of her daughter’s voice that constantly seems to call to her from across the sea.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2016

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