Don’t you wish sometimes that you could recapture your childhood talent for adaptability? To welcome new experiences, rather than fear them? To deal with parental contradictions and inconsistencies? When strangers spirit Carmel Wakeford away from her mother Beth, the child accepts it as an adventure. For Beth, the separation is unbearable.
In her first novel, Kate Hamer cleverly weaves Beth and Carmel’s contrasting perspectives to form a gripping narrative. In alternating chapters, Beth blunders around in vain, tormenting herself and grasping at straws, while Carmel escorts us on a journey with mysterious companions whose intentions seem to vary from benevolent to sinister. One moment she finds herself in a gloomy stone house that belongs to an earlier age. The next, she’s traveling in the back of a truck through an unfamiliar landscape. Seeing all this through the eyes of a child is what drives the novel.
Carmel has a unique way of adapting to new experiences. Her wonderful descriptions of them raise The Girl in the Red Coat above the level of most mysteries. Consider Carmel’s occasional trips into the dreamy world that so aggravate her mother: “Sometimes things happen so it feels like I’m not really there at all. It’s like the time the headmaster was talking about when I was sitting on the bench – looking at a tree blowing about – somehow my brain got slipped and in the world there was only me and the tree.” As one character puts it, Carmel has “a channel with God.”
As time passes and Carmel remains missing, Beth tries distracting herself from worry by reading a book on anatomy. “It helped, somehow, learning the human body … As if Carmel had not been taken but had shattered apart into fragments. An explosion of particles, fine like glass, and I could somehow learn to knit her back together again.” Hamer’s empathy for her characters shifts the reader in and out of their turbulent worlds, while allowing us to linger and savor each sentence.
I can’t go into more detail without spoiling the mystery, but rest assured that just getting to know this empathetic child is worth the price of the book. My only reason for rating this novel four stars out of five is its occasional offensive language. I hope Kate Hamer leaves the ugly words behind on future journeys.