All it takes is just a moment for every parent’s worst nightmare to come true. Beth, a single mother, takes her eight-year-old daughter Carmel to a local children’s festival – a magical place where children are entertained by storytellers, their imaginations encouraged to soar. Beth only takes her eye off Carmel for an instant, her daughter wriggling her hand free to assert her independence, but that’s enough. Carmel is taken. While Beth runs around the festival in a desperate search, trying to comfort herself that at any moment she’ll see her girl in the bright red coat, Carmel is in a car being driven through many dark miles through the night by a man who claims to be her grandfather. Her mother is badly injured, he tells her, her father is too wrapped up in his new family to care, Carmel is better off with him and his wife, somewhere far, far away, leaving her mother to recover in peace.
The Girl in the Red Coat is an emotional and at times desperately sad tale of a child’s disappearance, told in the first person by both the mother and the child. We watch the agony and displacement of both as the days tick by, never forgetting the other, while having to cope with an unwantable future.
Any concerns that this might venture into the grim territory of sexual predation, somewhere I wouldn’t want to follow, is soon dissipated. Although The Girl in the Red Coat is indeed grim in places – how could it not be with a child as its victim – this is a very different kind of story. At its heart is the strong, clever, brave Carmel. This little girl is lovely to spend time with. Her predicament and her courage are heartbreaking to read. She describes everything she endures in her own words, as well as her trust in this ‘grandfather’, but reading her own words of having to sleep in the dark, with no electricity, no comfort, tears the heart. At the same time we have the mystery of the grandfather and his wife – what do they want with Carmel? What does she mean to them?
Kate Hamer does a wonderful job of putting us into the shoes of this lost, frightened little girl, not just at the beginning but also as time goes by and Carmel has to re-evaluate everything about herself. She is an extraordinary young girl but it’s only as the days pass that we learn in how many ways she is different. There’s another side to the story, though. That is the dark place occupied by Carmel’s mother, Beth. Beth becomes a searcher, a woman whose eyes never stop watching for traces of red coat. The world is closed around her as she withdraws into her pain. But, again, Kate Hamer skilfully shows us, through Beth’s own thoughts, that space expanding as the days drag by. Other people are drawn into Beth’s world, just as others join Carmel.
Reading The Girl in the Red Coat is very sad at times but it’s not without its moments of lightness. Carmel is a fantastic observer of people and situations and she finds the humour, as well as the absurd, in both. There is also always hope.
The Girl in the Red Coat is an immersive novel to read. It’s extremely atmospheric and very hard to put down once picked up. I would argue that it’s best read in one or two sittings. It’s as its best with the outside world kept at bay. In that way Carmel can work her magic.