Book Review: The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer

Beth takes her eight-year-old daughter Carmel to a storytelling fair, and when Carmel gets frustrated with her mother’s overprotective nature she convinces Beth to let her roam a book tent without holding her hand. In the flurry of people mother and daughter are separated, and when Carmel goes looking for her mother a man claiming to be her estranged grandfather tells Carmel that her mother has been knocked down by a car while looking for her.

After taking Carmel to live with him and his partner Dorothy, he delivers the grave news that her mother is dead and her father wants nothing to do with her. Soon Carmel is in America with her grandfather, Dorothy and Dorothy’s two daughters, and she’s been told her hands have special healing powers.

Meanwhile at home, Beth and Paul are growing frantic wondering if they will ever see their little girl again.

The Girl in the Red Coat is an odd book. I feel it can be divided into three sections; the beginning which is really hard going and difficult to get through, the middle which is quite interesting and shows how all the characters are slowly learning to live their new lives, and the end which is hurried and lacks closure.

I think it’s always difficult for an adult to write a book from the point of view of a child, there is a tendency to either make them sound too old or too young, and in this instance I don’t feel that Hamer quite captures eight-year-old Carmel’s voice. I feel the vocabulary she uses in her thoughts and narration is too mature yet her actual speech seems very young – it’s confused.

In this beginning section there was also a lot of moments where over-the-top descriptions  are used which left me rolling my eyes. There was one particular description which I found a little odd, when Beth says she wishes she could crawl inside the shell of Carmel’s skull and look through her eye sockets. Granted, I know she is deeply distressed and guilt ridden over losing her daughter, but I found notion of any parent wanting to crawl inside their child’s skull, even metaphorically, a little disturbing. As a consequence, I didn’t really warm to either Beth or Carmel.

As the story progressed these descriptions seemed to fall away which I was very grateful for – to me the middle seemed far more natural, almost as if Hamer had been trying too hard in the beginning to be different with her descriptions rather than just letting the narrative flow from her naturally.

However while the middle section definitely picked up for me the ending was a little too lazy – some loose ends were tied up too quickly while others were left hanging entirely. Really I think we needed maybe another chapter, especially as we only actually see the very last scene from one character’s point of view, whereas throughout the book we have alternated between Beth and Carmel. In the same way that it was interesting seeing how both characters adapted to their new lives, it would have been interesting to see how the other character felt about in the final scene.

The Girl in the Red Coat is an odd one, I’m not sure that I either liked or disliked it. If you do manage to wade through the beginning successfully the heart of the book shows extremely well the difficulty that both Beth and Carmel face as the begin to try and carve new lives for themselves without each other, so it really is a shame that the end of the book doesn’t do the middle section justice.


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