Kate Hamer, The Girl in the Red Coat (2015)
Review by Kate Horsley
Eight-year old Carmel, “the girl in the red coat”, disappears in the fog from a storytelling festival, abducted by an old man pretending to be her estranged grandfather. In reality, the man is an itinerant preacher who believes the girl has a gift for healing the sick. Telling her that her mother has died, he transports her to the States and leads her off into an increasingly bizarre world in which he is committed to demonstrating that “she’s the one….a very rare person.”
Kate Hamer’s beautifully crafted story is told from the alternating perspectives of Carmel and her distraught mother, Beth. For Beth, the day she lost her daughter, “the sense of the ground opening up,” is a nightmare to be repeatedly relived, as she tries to hold on to life as she knows it. For Carmel, the struggle is to grasp a form of life she has never known. Her account of the months and years following her abduction brings us to understand both the family that has taken her and her own Stockholm syndrome-like acquiescence. As she grows older, she tries desperately to hold on to her name and to some sense of her former self, whilst imprisoned by the preacher’s determination to exploit the special powers that she does indeed appear to possess.
Beth’s narrative provides readers with a constant reminder of the painful reality of a grown-up sense of loss. But it is Carmel’s narrative that most fully holds our attention, the immediate realities of her new life observed from her own bemused but also precociously sensitive angle. Of her obscurely understood journey, for example, she reflects: “When I wake up I remember my name is Carmel. I’m being rattled around now. I’m in a sort of factory maybe, rolling forward like an engine or a chocolate to the place where metal arms will pack me up into a box. Once I think I’m going to fall off the moving belt but I don’t know what onto – I feel like I’ll carry on falling. Further and further and forever.”
As she grows older, Carmel becomes capable of increasingly detailed and perceptive observations about the strange world into which she has fallen. The Girl in the Red Coat is a subtle, absorbing novel. We read it, of course, to find out what hazards Carmel will face and whether she is ever to be reunited with her mother. But even more than that we read for the fascinating representation of grown-up obsessions and ambitions from the perspective of an intelligent child who is struggling to process what she experiences: “I try to make sense of what I see.”