I came across this novel through my local bookshop (the wonderful West End Lane Books in North West London), which regularly hosts evenings with authors, giving us a chance to hear an extract of their latest book and ask questions directly to them. One such event recently welcomed Paula Hawkins (author of The Girl on The Train – read my review here) and Kate Hamer, author of this new debut novel. I intend to write up that event (watch this space), but Kate was lovely to chat to (like me, she still prefers to read a book rather than one on a Kindle) and after hearing more about her book, it sparked my curiosity and I bought a copy. On finishing it, I can say that it is quite an emotional experience, which at times I found quite difficult to read.
The girl of the title is eight year-old Carmel, a young girl who seems wiser than her years, with a love of books, her red coat and who is curious about the world around her. Her mother, Beth, recently divorced and struggling to move on with her life, senses that her daughter isn’t quite like other children and has a fear she’ll lose her, which never goes away. Tragically that’s exactly what happens when, on a trip to a literature festival, they are separated. I imagine this is every parent’s worst nightmare.
Through the story, Kate Hamer takes us through their separate lives, as Carmel, abducted by a religious preacher / spiritualist, adjusts to a whole new existence in America, replacing the tents of the literature festival from which she is taken, with those of the faith healing circuit. As she moves from place to place, she soon understands that Gramps (as she calls him, believing him to be the grandfather she has never met) is planning to have her perform faith healing, so certain is he that she has a special gift. At the same time, Beth tries to cope with the devastating loss of her daughter, whose disappearance is marked at the start of each of her chapters by the number of days, months and years since she was taken.
It is an incredibly moving story, but I admit that I did find it very difficult to read at times. It became a book I had to finish, desperate to know whether there was a happy ending, rather than one I looked forward to picking up. This has nothing to do with the writing. The book is very well written, as Kate Hamer creates two incredibly realistic characters in Carmel and Beth and the worlds they inhabit feel believable. It just made me so upset that I almost couldn’t continue reading. The thought of a child so young being taken, told her mother has died and removed from all she knows was heartbreaking to me and I admit to feeling very angry at the old couple in the story, who seem to think a religion would approve of such awful actions. I did skim some of the early Carmel chapters as I couldn’t bare to read what was happening, as it seemed all too possible that a young child could be deceived in such a way.
I think some people may assume this is a thriller, but I don’t agree with that description of the novel. It is a book that doesn’t sit perfectly within any genre. Instead it is a story about loss and how we cope with it in our lives, no matter our age. It is also a story highlighting the bond between mother and daughter. Carmel has to process the loss of her mother and her old life, while Beth is forced to try and survive, in the hope that one day Carmel will come home. Their bond is always there, as each continues to take strength and courage from thinking of the other.
Reading Carmel’s chapters, I tended to forget how young she was, as she thinks very maturely. Hearing her determination to maintain her sense of self in her own words was very moving and as a reader you are hoping for a miracle that will help her get home. I did however prefer Beth’s chapters, perhaps because I found it easier to imagine how I would feel in her place. As time goes on we see her grow stronger – Carmel is never forgotten (a scene in a shoe shop brought tears to my eyes), but she realises that she has to rebuild her life in order to keep going and I found myself feeling incredibly proud of how much she begins to achieve.
I’m not sure I would say this book would appeal to thriller fans. Instead, if you enjoy a character-based story, which focuses on relationships and our connections with each other, then this is certainly a book you should read. Although it wasn’t the easiest novel to read personally, it was deeply moving and is a very impressive debut by Kate Hamer. I’ll definitely make sure I keep an eye out for whatever she writes next.
The Girl In The Red Coat by Kate Hamer is published by Faber & Faber and is available from all the usual book stockists.