THE GIRL IN THE RED COAT by Kate Hamer
CBTB Rating: 5/5
The verdict: must-read.
I want to preface this review by saying: this is one of the most incredible, well-written, moving mysteries I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. It is non-traditional, which might bother a reader looking for a classic cat-and-mouse mystery, but it has a depth and intelligence which elevates it above many of its peers, and makes it a 2016 must-read.
THE GIRL IN THE RED COAT is a totally unique take on an abduction story. It is layered, complex, and emotional, and brings the reader deep into the minds of two very different main characters: mother Beth and daughter Carmel. Eight-year-old Carmel has always been different. She is delicate, perceptive, and a bit distracted—a quality which particularly concerns her mother, Beth. Carmel has a habit of disappearing. She describes it as “losing time”—she becomes absorbed in her own world, and sometimes wanders off. When Beth takes Carmel to a local storytelling festival, her worst fear is realized: Carmel disappears, but this time, Beth can’t find her. What follows is a painful and terrifying journey for both mother and daughter, as Beth searches high and low for Carmel, and as Carmel tries to make sense of, and cope with, her fate.
Kate Hamer is a phenomenal, beautiful writer. It’s a pleasure to read her writing just for its own sake; it’s an added bonus that she applies those talents to create a gripping, devastating mystery. She writes characters that are vivid and compelling, each with unique quirks and viewpoints that seem to jump off the page. The reader quickly gets lost in the minds of Carmel and Beth. I was incredibly impressed with the thoughtfulness that Hamer put into these two characters and their unique development. At its core, this story is about grief: how we cope with it, the way we use our imaginations to cushion its blow, and why we continue to have hope when a situation seems hopeless. It goes without saying that an adult and a child cope with situations entirely differently, and Hamer did this difference justice in her novel. She took great care to consider the coping mechanisms that Beth and Carmel would each rely on in such an extreme situation, and the quality of character development in this story truly brings the characters to life.
This story is also rich with recurring elements that subtly add intrigue to an already compelling novel. The color red becomes a thread woven throughout the story, connecting mother, daughter, and kidnapper. Red is both hopeful and devastating—a way for Carmel to retain her identity during her captivity, and a marker that initially made her a target for her kidnapper. The novel also has very unexpected religious and supernatural elements that become a shadowy presence encircling Carmel. These elements force the reader to suspend reality just briefly, but I didn’t find them disruptive to the story at all. On the contrary, I loved Hamer’s unique way of driving home the point that Carmel is totally, completely unique—an almost ethereal little girl, snatched up by an evil presence.
This story’s central mystery is undeniably tragic and urgent: a young daughter kidnapped, a grieving mother searching tirelessly for her little girl. But what makes this story incredible is how it goes beyond a whodunit. Though the question of who kidnapped Carmel drives the story forward, its real meat comes in the character studies Kate Hamer constructs. It is rare to find a mystery that is so lyrically and deftly written, it can stand on its prose as much as its intrigue, but Hamer does it effortlessly. Hamer’s debut is a gift to readers of crime and mystery. Jump on her debut as soon as it releases in February 2016—this is a must-read.
A huge thank you to Melville House for the advanced copy of THE GIRL IN THE RED COAT.