Love and loss, and the intersection between the two, is fertile territory for art. The 1990 hit film, Ghost, and the 2009 adaption of The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold’s novel about a teenage girl who, after being raped and murdered, watches her distraught family from some personal Heaven – are recent examples.
The Girl in the Red Coat, by Kate Hamer, taps the same rich vein. The locus here though does not revolve around man and wife, or even family in a mum+dad+2.4 kids-sense. Rather, this is a meditation on the most fundamental of all bonds: that between mother and child.
Beth, the mother, has a solidly modern backstory: divorced messily she is now alone, past her prime, cash strapped and vulnerable, with only her daughter, Carmel, to anchor her life. That her ex-husband, Carmel’s father, left her for a younger woman, is yet another well-trodden reference that both adds and takes away: yes it provides a great platform, but it also brings the mother’s track dangerously close to being pedestrian. It’s saved from mediocrity, however, by some eye-catching writing:
“After Paul had gone the house slowly emptied of his presence. Every time the door opened the wind blew in and took with it a bit more of him. The smell of tea faded. We’d kept the dresser full of stock and it exuded smoky smells of Lapsang and deep stately tannin with a flowery trill of jasmine riding in its wake. The smell of tea still makes me think of Paul.”
The ‘voice’ of Carmel sometimes pushes at the limits of credibility for an eight year old, but it’s a minor point. The two central characters, mother and daughter, dovetail beautifully. And the build-up to the critical moment – when the mother loses her daughter – is expertly handled, with a palpable ratcheting up of tension. And thereafter, the confusion and panic raking through the mother is expressed, jarringly, in every day terms, which makes it all the more intense. Given the story, the temptation for the writer to slip into hyperbole, to ostentatiously pull on the readers’ heartstrings, would be strong. That this does not happen is thus noteworthy; it’s a nod towards a writer, an artist with a very fine hand:
“The train went through an avenue of trees. Carmel’s hair splayed out with static across the nylon headrest of the seat as she looked out of the window. As we passed through the trees they made a pattern so her face was one moment in bright sunlight and the next in darkness. This is the image I remember most from the day. Carmel’s face being stripped with light and dark, flickering on and off, like at the end of a spool of film when it’s about to run out.”
For the reader, the moment of loss, of separation, leaves a set of irresistible questions hanging in the air: who is the man who has taken the girl? Why has he taken her? And pregnant in every subsequent page: will mother and child be reunited?
Any Cop?: Superficially, The Girl In The Red Coat looks and feels like a solid but well-referenced mystery – one with a slant towards a female reader. But at heart, this is an examination of elemental love, and its concomitant pain on sudden loss. And it works beautifully.