The Girl in the Red Coat

Kate Hamer

Published by Faber 5 March 2015

384pp, hardback, £12.99

Reviewed by Alison Burns

Click here to buy this book


So sometimes the very worst thought becomes a train that doesn’t stop.

The thought: Was it my fault? Was it my fault? Was it my fault? Was it my fault? Was it my fault? Was it my fault? Was it my fault? Was it my fault? Was it my fault?

This is a story about faith, and about faith-healing; about what it means both to be an ordinary mother and daughter, and to be slightly out of the ordinary.

A mother’s worst nightmare:  you lose your young daughter at a storytelling festival.  She has gone missing before, lapsing into what sounds like the epileptic’s petit mal.  Always, before, you have found her – fast asleep under a hedge, or curled up in a corner.  What you don’t know is that she has a special power, the laying on of hands to heal.  She doesn’t know it either, though she recognizes the sensation when it happens.

The world being what it is, someone has noticed this power, and wants it for his own ends.

So begins a tale of separation and kidnapping, in which both Beth, the mother, and Carmel, the daughter, feel responsible.  After all, single-mother Beth was being too protective, and Carmel had grown tired of this.  Needless to say, the story hinges upon the harmless actions of a friend who has no means of knowing that there is a man around who is hunting for a healer through whom he can make his living.

Sensitive 8-year-old Carmel is an attractive child.  The reader guns for her, as she tries to make sense of what is happening.  She has hidden from her mother, and then can’t find her.  A figure comes up to her out of the fog at the end of the festival and says he’s her grandfather (whom she’s never met), that her mother has had an accident and he’s taking her home.  From there, she is taken to a weird locked house and then, drugged, to America, on the passport of another girl, whose name she refuses to take.  Wherever she goes, she writes her real name and a few details on anything she can lay her hands on (once tying to a tree a snippet of the T-shirt she was wearing), and thinks of her mother.

Meanwhile, Beth struggles with guilt, distress and failure, but somehow keeps hoping.  With painful slowness, over many years, she finds something else to do while waiting to be a mother again.  This includes befriending her ex-husband’s new partner.

Adult behaviour and what children notice are at the heart of this book.  Carmel says at one point: ‘I suddenly feel very tired about all the arguments and falling out and shouting and clothes coming out of windows that adults do right over your head, as if you’re just the mouse on the floor and don’t understand.  “Just a little tiff me and your mum are having,” they say, even when their voices sounded like they were going to kill each other with knives.’

I won’t reveal the ending.  This isn’t the most horrifying, or indeed the most imaginative, of books in this genre, but forthright, loyal Carmel stays in the mind.





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