With a début novel like The Girl in the Red Coat, the pressure was always going to be on for the follow-up. With The Doll Funeral, Kate Hamer once more displays her distinctive mix of the macabre and the everyday, with her novel again having more than a hint of the fairy-tale. In another parallel to her first novel, the novel once more focuses on the relationship between mothers and daughters. However, The Doll Funeral lacks the same intensity of focus that made its predecessor so agonisingly compelling, meanders from one plot point to another with little resolution and ultimately comes off as a novel which has tried to be many things and has ended up as very little. There can be no doubt that Hamer is hugely talented as a writer but readers looking for an equal to Red Coat are destined for disappointment.
Hamer’s main protagonist is Ruby, a thirteen year old girl living in rural poverty in 1983. We meet her on her birthday, when her parents Mick and Barbara decide to tell her that she is actually adopted. However, the narrative then switches back and forth with Ruby’s birth mother Anna back in 1970, a teenage girl who finds herself pregnant and comes under intense pressure to either give up her baby or capitulate to marriage with the child’s father. Interestingly, at this year’s Hay Festival, the author Colm Toibin launched a passionate denouncement of flashbacks, which have become rather ubiquitous in modern fiction. It is a rather inorganic way of revealing character information and certainly, I felt that later revelations about Ruby’s parentage might have packed more punch without it.
Back in 1983, Hamer explores the common childhood and adolescent fantasy of wishing one was adopted, with Ruby deciding that her ‘real’ parents will offer her more than the violent Mick and ineffective Barbara will ever be able to. Having had a birthmark since childhood and being frequently obliged to miss school to hide her bruises, Ruby is an outsider, yet her outcast status is even greater than the average disaffected teenager from an unhappy home. All her life, Ruby has been accompanied by the mysterious ‘Shadow Boy’ whose voice takes up a third strand of the narrative. Sometimes Ruby sees people that others do not. There is more going on here than she is quite ready to admit.
Finally fleeing Mick and Barbara, Ruby discovers a family of abandoned children living in the forest. It was at this point that the story began to break down. What has up to this point been a coming-of-age tale about a young girl seeking her origins becomes tangled and confused with the mystery of what has become of Crispin, with the side mystery of who the man in the van is who keeps coming to look in the shed. By the time one has added in the references to Pilgrim’s Progress and Alice in Wonderland, the book felt completely overloaded.
Hamer is one of those writers who has the ability to craft sentences so perfect that one pauses to truly take them in. A particular favourite was when Mick was marching Ruby back from one of her escape attempts throught he back garden and she thought ‘his mood felt enough to make the shirts hanging on the line snap and clap their cuffs together’. With cars crashing, corpses being spotted hanging from trees and crumbling houses, Hamer has given herself plenty of opportunity to display her linguistic prowess. However, with a plot so bogged-down and confused, her work goes unappreciated.
I have a feeling that there were around three decent books stuck together in The Doll Funeral but as it is, the book feels like a chore to trudge through. In making mention of 1970s Anna and then 1980s Barbara’s victimhood, I presume that Hamer was attempting to make a point about the position of women, but whatever it was got lost in the general noise of all of her other sub-plots. With a title such as this, one assumes a novel about putting away childish things but Ruby’s journey feels unfinished and the resolution for her new friends feels forced. Hamer can do better than this. I will look forward to when she does.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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Published by Faber & Faber on January 31st 2017
Genres: Fiction, General
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