This is the first novel by Welsh author, Kate Hamer, who previously won the Rhys Davies short story award in 2011. The first thing that strikes is the novel’s title. Any reference to a girl in a red coat evokes the apparition of the child in Nicolas Roeg’s acclaimed film of 1973, ‘Don’t Look Now’, with all its associations of the colour red signifying danger, loss and death. That evocation drew me to the novel, as I suspect it will with many other readers.
The novel reads like a thriller; a young girl called Carmel becomes separated from her mother at a children’s storytelling festival, but then an older man, who claims to be Carmel’s grandfather, approaches her to tell her that her mother has been involved in a serious accident, and takes Carmel away. The narrative grabs the reader’s attention immediately and holds it by revealing very gradually the mystery of Carmel’s real situation.
The narrative is reminiscent of Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’, a child kidnapped by a man who ‘kills off’ her mother (figuratively rather than literally) and taken on the road in the USA, but it differs in two important ways: first, the abuse carried out is not sexual and crucially, in this story the voices of the mother and child are not silenced; their experiences are reported and validated. In this sense, the novel could be interpreted as a ‘writing back’ to ‘Lolita’.
The story alternates between the first person narratives of Carmel, who isn’t aware that she is missing, and her mother, Beth, who relates the unthinkable experience of losing a child, the ensuing Police searches, and the anti-climaxes of false sightings.
The novel explores loss and separation, exploring the tenuous links that affect our daily lives and, sometimes, our fates. The protagonists use various strategies to try to make connections between their secure pasts and uncertain futures. Beth draws a huge diagram of every person in Carmel’s life in an attempt to decipher where she might be, but crucially misses the vital clue provided in a throwaway fashion by a onetime friend. Carmel leaves scraps of paper with the same message about her past in the places she visits, unconsciously leaving a trail for someone to track her by.
The characterisation of Carmel is also entirely credible. The reader follows the events after her disappearance from a child’s eye view, and begins to understand why her abductor claims that she has a special gift. Throughout the novel, the reader anticipates the danger that Carmel could be in, and part of Hamer’s skill is preserving that tension in the reader.
Hamer makes interesting use of the image of the red coat . Despite Beth’s scoffing at reported sightings of girls in red coats years after Carmel’s disappearance, she is unaware that Carmel herself has created an identity around the wearing of a red coat and eventually becomes known as ‘the girl in the red coat’ to others in the itinerant community surrounding her. This undercuts the concept of red as a colour associated with danger, replacing it with red as a colour of action, passion and healing. This ties in with the central theme of the novel but the author has taken great care not to overstate the new associations. They are implied rather than stated and much of the novel’s power is drawn from the understatement of the contentions of Carmel’s special ‘gift’.
Another aspect of the author’s approach to this type of genre is its great subtlety. There is no sensationalism present in the narrative, nor is there any sentimentality. It would have been so easy for Hamer to fall into a ‘tabloid’ mentality in telling this kind of story. Not only has she succeeded in steering away from those pitfalls, she has created a psychological drama that sits easily within the scope of a literary novel.