Review by Rachel Hughes
If you venture into any book retailer you will find the striking red cover of The Girl in the Red Coat nestled somewhere between titles Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train under a large sign, which reads ‘Thrillers’. Undeniably, Kate Hamer’s debut novel has all the makings of a good thriller. Eight-year-old Carmel is abducted by a man who claims to be her estranged grandfather, leaving her grief-stricken Mother (Beth) an arduous quest to find her little girl.
However, for a thriller, The Girl in the Red Coat leaves very little room for guesswork and speculation. The novel is told in the alternating perspectives of the devastated mother and missing child. As a result, the reader is placed in the frustrating situation of having all the answers while being made to watch Carmel and Beth stumble through the narrative with half the story. For me, this narrative structure undermines the climatic revelation of information that defines a successful thriller.
Regrettably, the opening chapters of the novel are saturated with similes and metaphors; the reader must navigate an excess of jarring descriptions before he/she can invest in the narrative. Likewise, in the opening chapters of Carmel’s first person narrative, the reader must accept that this eight-year-old girl has an extremely sophisticated vocabulary for her age. In my opinion, the tensions with the language in the novel arise out of its conflicting ambitions. On the one hand, The Girl in the Red Coat wants to be a bestselling fast paced page-turner. On the other hand, the slow moving descriptive language marks Hamer as a writer who is self-conscious of literary merit. However, if the reader can forgive these initial struggles, they will be subsequently rewarded with an emotive and thought-provoking depiction of the female psyche.
The dual narrative is simultaneously this book’s greatest asset and biggest weakness. Looking beyond the novels shortcomings as a thriller, the alternating structure releases an effective mode of representation for the mother/daughter relationship – the crux of the narrative. The role of the mother, in literature, is often one dimensional and tangential. Yet Hamer’s characterisation of Beth is masterful; she is a mother, but she is given the space and time in the narrative to display the complex and diverse traits that define her character aside from her maternal duties. While I found Carmel’s narrative sometimes far-fetched, I was captivated by Beth and the heart-breaking psychosis of a mother who has lost her child. The real paradox of The Girl in the Red Coat is not, what will happen to Carmel? But rather, what will happen to Beth? Hamer’s brave and authentic depiction of womanhood and motherhood is truly the highlight of this novel.
While The Girl in the Red Coat is a thought-provoking take on the abduction story paradigm, it is not the page turning thriller that the marketing team at Faber & Faber are willing it to be. Instead, it is Hamer’s daringly honest portrayal of motherhood, which will stay with you.