Into the woods

George Frederic Watts Little Red Riding Hood (1890: public domain)

Kate Hamer: The Girl in the Red Coat
Faber & Faber 2015

An impressive debut novel, The Girl in the Red Coat thoroughly deserves its plaudits. Part magic realism, part fairytale, part contemporary fiction (at one stage the 9/11 event is playing out on television) Kate Hamer has created an unputdownable story that has had many readers finishing it in a night, though I steeled myself to stretch it out a bit longer. Its theme is a harrowing one for anyone with a child, namely the disappearance of that child without a trace. The author swaps between two viewpoints, the mother Beth Wakefield and her daughter Carmel, so we see developments through both their eyes; and, as time goes on, we too begin to wonder if there will be any optimistic resolution to Beth and Carmel’s tale.

It’s hard to speak much of the narrative without giving away spoilers, so I will resort to allusions. The title has already suggested one narrative that will immediately spring to mind, the story of Red Riding Hood. I’d not go as far as Bruno Bettelheim’s theories on the psychological significance of this tale, but Hamer certainly plays on themes of abduction, dissembling and maturation which can be drawn out of the fairytale; Hansel and Gretel, The Babes in the Wood and other similar tales of abandonment also find their echoes here. Another group of tales based on the Bluebeard archetype thrust themselves forward too, though instead of a castle we have a disused institution, later replaced by a mobile home. In fact, I was reminded very much of Angela Carter’s work, in particular The Magic Toyshop, in terms of the dream-like qualities of both protagonists’ existences as well as the similarity of themes (though of course the parallels aren’t exact).

Eight-year-old Carmel is distinctive, in appearance and in a kind of strange uniqueness that many sense in her. Her mother Beth is separated from Carmel’s father and estranged from her parents but she is anxious about being solely responsible for the child in their home in East Anglia. When Carmel disappears she blames herself, in her distress, for provoking the situation. A police manhunt turns up no leads, but we learn that Carmel has been picked up by a man with a limp claiming to be her grandfather, who tells the girl that her mother has been killed in a road accident. We then follow the two parallel lives: Beth, ever distressed, constantly frets, never giving up hope but wondering if she can ever rebuild her life; Carmel finds herself leading a nomadic existence with her ‘grandfather’, who believes she has a special healing gift. But she cannot remain a little girl forever.

Within the thriller format the magic realist aspect keeps trying to assert itself, from the misty sea fret that invades the Norfolk storytelling festival when the story first takes off to the deliberately vague references to climate and seasons and places in the North American sections. It’s all bound together with Carmel’s supposed gift: this is subjective storytelling, eschewing exposition and focusing on emotional responses and sensory feelings. Beth in her desperation tries to draw out likely threads in a chart on a bedroom wall, marking in new relationships and possible leads as they emerge; Carmel tries to make sense of the sequence of apparently random events even as her path zigzags its way through townships, countryside and places of worship.

Though our focus is primarily on Carmel and Beth, there is a subsidiary cast of characters, all distinctive enough that we wonder about their lives. But also running through the narrative like a wayward thread is a sinister theme of self-righteous religionists who, preying on desperate individuals, are motivated by the hopes of imminent riches but who bear within themselves a canker that blights the soul. If there is a wolf in this tale it is made flesh by these predatory types. The hope that the innocent may overcome those who wish to assert power over them is what encourages the reader to pursue The Girl in the Red Coat to its conclusion. Just once or twice I wasn’t totally convinced by Carmel’s vocabulary and turn of phrase, but on the whole I found this a beautifully written suspenseful piece, one I was happy to totally give myself up to.

Antique engraving of European wolf
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8 thoughts on “Into the woods

  1. Yes, just ordered this, thanks! CSE Cooney impressed me with her contemporary fairytales, as did Susanna Clarke and the first part of Novik’s Uprooted. If well done, it can be an extremely satisfying genre. Maybe so much because it taps in to the first stories we heard as children?

    1. Good points, Bart. Hamer cleverly taps into two aspects of child abduction here I think, the parent’s and the child’s: the guilt of the parent (What did I do wrong? Is it my fault?) and the anxiety of the child (What’s happening to me? I wonder what my parent(s) is/are thinking and doing?).

      Novels like this, plus real-life misery memoirs and sensationalist news headlines which dominate media attention to the exclusion of more pressing social and political matters all exacerbate parental fears, while — as you point out — the child’s anxieties about abandonment are frontloaded by fairytales told largely from the protagonist’s viewpoint, with the woods as a metaphor for the dangerous world outside.

      Anyway, I hope you too will enjoy this, whether as a story of adult adjustment to tragedy or as modern retelling of a fairytale!

  2. You know, I’ve had this on my TBR pile for months and other books have kept nudging themselves forward, pushing TGITRC backwards. Was going to read Margaret Attwood’s Blind Assasin next, but after reading your review, this might just leap ahead. Thanks Chris

    1. In between dipping into several novels, rereading about Dido Twite and reading your draft (no, I haven’t given up on it, Lynn, despite your fears!) I managed to squeeze this in — a quick impulsive read that speaks straight to emotions and needs none of the pretentious analysis I subject most books to! You’ll race through it, I’m sure. 🙂

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