Until about the midway point, I couldn’t put Kate Hamer’s novel The Girl in the Red Coat down. When eight-year-old Carmel Wakefield disappears, her mother, Beth, is unhinged by her grief. Hamer’s novel follows Beth’s narrative as well as Carmel’s and until the reader understands the reasons for Carmel’s abduction, the novel is propulsive and riveting.
Beth is sort of a hippie. She and her ex-husband, Paul, had “run a business together buying and selling ginseng and specialty teas.” Paul, after leaving the marriage, has been a relatively absent father and his relationship with Beth is strained mostly because he has a new, much-younger girlfriend.
Carmel is a precocious child. At a parent teacher meeting, the headmaster explains to Beth that Carmel’s “vocabulary is extremely advanced. Her imagination is amazing, I don’t think she quite sees the world like the rest of us.”
On the fateful day that Carmel disappears, Beth has taken her to children’s story festival. She has decided that she needs to set aside the grief of her crumbled marriage and “start afresh.”
The festival is a treat and Carmel “can feel words come shooting out of the tent doors and [she] just want[s] to stand there at the openings and let them fizz on [her] brain.” It’s a hot, crowded day and pretty soon Beth is getting cross and Carmel, in an act of defiance, ducks under a table to read a book. When she reappears, ages later, the fog has rolled in and her mother is gone. That’s when the man appears. He tells her that he is her grandfather and that her mother has been in a terrible accident.
Carmel has no reason to doubt the man. Her mother has been estranged from her parents for her whole life – it’s one of the things that has plagued Carmel’s young mind. Why doesn’t she have grandparents to bring her treats like her friends do? So, fearful and clearly alone, Carmel goes with the man who promises to take her to the hospital to see her mother. Of course, that’s not what happens.
The Girl in the Red Coat is suspenseful until Granddad’s motives are revealed and then it started to feel like a different book to me. In the first part, when Carmel is taken to a strange house where she meets her grandfather’s partner, Dorothy, Hamer does a wonderful job of stringing the reader (and Carmel) along. Why can’t she see her mom? Why can’t they contact her dad? Where are they?
Beth’s journey is also heart-wrenching. She counts the days Carmel has been gone. She searches for her daughter. She goes through the motions. But the time goes by and it’s like Carmel has dropped off the face of the earth.
Those early days are compelling for Beth, Carmel and the reader. For me, though, the novel’s suspense is spoiled by its key secret – and once that’s out I found myself caring less about all the players, which is too bad, because the book is beautifully written and had a lot of potential.