First Thoughts: The Girl in the Red Coat

THE story of a child going missing will resonate with many people from newspaper headlines if not actually from the direct experience of living with someone who has disappeared.

Kate Hamer’s debut page-turner is a very persuasive imagining of this experience and it very much captures that sense of living with someone who has disappeared rather than living without them.

Here, for instance, where the mother is bereft at the absence of her daughter and hundreds of days into the shattering drama she goes looking for the shoes she had promised to buy. There is that terrible sense of a mother continuing to live with her daughter with her every breath but without her by her side.

It could turn into a story about a descent into some kind of psychic breakdown or an obsessive vigil and refusal to accept reality a la Hitchcock’s Psycho but Hamer keeps her story grounded in the day-to-day of her flesh and blood characters and it is the better for that.

There is a hint of the torment that is to come in the story in a short scene early in the book where Beth and her daughter, Carmel, visit a classic garden maze. Carmel is a spacy kind of kid and she wanders and gets lost in the maze, creating terrible anguish which resolves when she is found. But this story is only a taster for what is to come later when they visit a book festival and Carmel disappears for real, sparking a police investigation.

There are a few self-consciously literary things happening early on with the child going missing in a maze, the book festival and the title which is only a slight twist on Little Red Riding Hood. Hamer doesn’t follow this initial impulse into an outright metafiction or some kind of parable. She is content to play with a few self-referential elements and leave them be as she rolls up her sleeves for her real metier — the full-blown characterisation of mother and daughter, their bond and their grief at it being sundered.

It would spoil the read to reveal where Carmel ends up. Suffice it to rule out one particular element that does not occur in this story. Counter to expectations of a story of this kind, it does not have a sexual abuse scenario at its core.

It is quite a propulsive story that actually goes into some unexpected territory. The way Carmel’s relationship plays out with her captors is quite interesting and, again, saying anything about it would perhaps be to say too much.

Beth had already split from her husband, Paul, who was in a new relationship at the start of the story. There is an explosive row where he blames her for losing their child. However, Beth’s later relationship with Paul and his new partner is played out nicely in the story.

The style of the narrative is to flip between the first hand accounts of mother and daughter. In making the child a bookish and verbal character, Hamer eschews any elaborate stylising of childish speech patterns for the child’s eye account in the story.

In style or substance, there is little startling but it is very accomplished, a good page turner and the characters are well drawn.

The Girl in the Red Coat

Kate Hamer

Faber & Faber, £7.99


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