The Girl In The Red Coat by Kate Hamer
Any mother’s worst nightmare is losing her child. We’ve all heard it before. It’s a phrase used often, almost casually, yet it doesn’t even begin to cover what it must actually feel like to lose a child. This is precisely what happens in Kate Hamer’s dazzling debut. Told from the perspectives of a bereft mother and her abducted daughter, The Girl in the Red Coat has two of the most hauntingly distinctive voices in fiction so far this year. It will have you turning pages in horrified awe until you’ve reached the last page in one sitting.
Carmel Wakeford has always been a slightly fey girl, often getting lost or wandering off on her own. Her single mother, Beth, recently divorced from Carmel’s father, has always suspected her daughter was slightly…different. She’d also always had an unnatural fear that she would lose Carmel. When Beth takes Carmel to a story-telling festival, these fears come to fruition. A heavy fog hangs over the day and Beth manages to lose her daughter in the crowds. Panic-stricken, she searches the festival frantically, her dread growing with every hour that passes.
Carmel, meanwhile, is taken by a man claiming to be her grandfather. He runs with her to his car and after driving through the night, arrives at a strange house where a woman (his partner) awaits them. He believes Carmel is extremely special, that she has otherworldly gifts. Through the disorientated perspective of an eight-year-old, we gradually discern that Carmel has been taken to America, where the man claiming to be her grandfather is a preacher. He believes Carmel has the power to heal, and travels the country earning money from her supernatural abilities.
Back home in England, Beth’s life unravels as she continues a dogged search for her daughter. In a nail-biting moment, she crosses paths with an old friend who tells her of the time Carmel laid hands on her bruises, only for them to disappear. This, of course, is the key to her disappearance: the strange, unearthly behaviour that caused Carmel to be taken. But it will be much, much longer before her mother realises this.
What is most stunning in this accomplished debut is the haunting quality of voice; both that of Carmel and her mother. Hamer weaves characters that will compel and captivate readers. The supernatural element is also left largely ambiguous, which always works so effectively in speculative fiction. It is never made explicit whether Carmel’s healing powers are real or not, an ambiguity which invites comparison to Jo Walton’s Among Others. To have such a distinctive voice makes this debut truly memorable: a tale that will leave you horrified and awed in equal measure.
So far this is available only in audio format in the U.S. But since I read mostly by audio, I will put this on my list.