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Saturday 9 May 2015

‘The Girl in the Red Coat’ by Kate Hamer

Published by Faber & Faber,
5 March 2015.
ISBN: 978-0-571-31324-2 (HB)

Crime fiction doesn’t always have to place murder at the centre of the mystery, and in Kate Hamer’s impressive debut the crime is abduction.

Hamer interweaves two stories, both in the first person, each with a distinct and distinctive voice: Carmel, snatched from a crowded festival tent at eight years old, and whisked off to America by an religious nut who claims, or pretends, to be her estranged grandfather; and Beth, Carmel’s single mother, left behind to search desperately for her missing daughter, and try to rebuild her life without ever losing hope even when the search is fruitless.

Like all the best fiction, the book is about the characters rather than the crime, although in the early days after Carmel’s disappearance the necessary police procedure takes place, albeit to no avail.

Beth’s story is heart-wrenching, especially to anyone who has been the mother of a small child, but Carmel’s is the richer of the two, packed with detail about the itinerant life she leads with her so-called grandfather (it is plain from the outset that he is nothing of the kind) and the quasi-family of Mexicans he has built. Carmel, it turns out, has a special gift: the ability to heal illness and disability through the laying on of hands. This, of course, makes her a precious commodity, and how she deals with it, a key strand in the narrative, is handled matter-of-factly and is not at all laboured. Whether or not the concept is something the reader believes, in this context it feels quite natural.

The narrative is peopled with a large and colourful cast of characters, each distinct and rounded, from the leading players right down to the burger bar server and relief family liaison officer.

Carmel herself is intelligent and feisty, observant and articulate beyond her years. Though she doesn’t question the story her ‘Gramps’ spins to gain her trust, she nurtures her memories of her old life and never quite abandons it. Beth is damaged, by the past as well as the present, and we see her growing stronger through the laborious process of building protective emotional scar tissue around the gaping wound of losing her daughter.

The jury is still out on whether it really qualifies as a crime novel, but one thing is certain: this is quality fiction. The writing is imaginative, almost poetic in places, but never to the extent that it distracts from the story; the characters have the ring of truth; the locations are vivid, sensuous and evocative. And the story grips; from the outset I ached to know what would happen to Carmel, whether she would be reunited with her mother – and above all, I wanted to know what happened after the book ended.

On this showing, Kate Hamer will go far as a novelist.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

 Kate Hamer grew up in Pembrokeshire. She did a Creative Writing MA at Aberystwyth University and the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course. She won the Rhys Davies short story award in 2011 and her winning story was read out on BBC Radio 4. She has recently been awarded a Literature Wales bursary. She lives in Cardiff with her husband. The Girl in the Red Coat (March 2015) is her first novel.


Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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