“[Evokes] both Jeanette Winterson and Ian McEwan… an elegiac and uplifting novel about the indissoluble bonds between mothers and daughters, and a reminder of how the imagination can set you free.” —The Guardian
THE DOLL FUNERAL
by KATE HAMER | on sale: AUGUST 15, 2017
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“Hamer’s ability to conjure an atmosphere is certainly powerful. Particularly resonant is her portrait of the beauty and menace of the Forest of Dean.” —The Sunday Times
23 August 1983
I felt sure, the more I thought of it (and that’s about all I’d been thinking of since my birthday), that my real parents did not want to give me up. I expected that went double for my mother because mothers shouldn’t want to give their children away. I refused to believe it could’ve been easy. There must have been a reason for it, something completely terrible. They’d chosen my name, Ruby, and—the way I saw it—why would you choose a name like that for a child you didn’t want?
Three nights after my birthday the moon rose as fat as a peach. I watched it turn the forest canopy into a shifting silver sea.
Anything seemed possible in this light. My real parents, my flesh and blood, could be near, even living right here in the Forest of Dean. I just needed a way to find them.
I left the pillow bunched in my bed, took the pillowcase with me and crept through the moonlit spaces of the house. On the bookshelf were two books from my Gran — an aged copy of Pilgrim’s Progress that used to belong to her and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which she’d given me for my ninth birthday. I had the idea to open one on a chance page and see if somehow there might be a message from her there within the story. I hesitated, then picked Alice, thinking even at that moment I’d probably chosen badly with these tales of disappearing cats and lizard gardeners. I put it in my pillowcase sack. I found the same sharp kitchen knife that had diced up my birthday cake and used it to fillet some ears of barley from the dusty flower display under the mirror. I dropped them in the sack among the other things — horse chestnuts from my bedside drawer, torn up grass, cloth and red thread from Barbara’s workbox.
The flowers of the evening primroses were wide open and floated pale above the grasses. The back gate creaked on its hinges. It led directly into the trees. As I glided through the forest in my plain white nightie I thought, with my sack and this knife sticking out in front of me, if anyone sees me they’ll think I’m a robber, and it made me brave, this looking-like-a-robber girl and the belief that I could strike fear into the hearts of others.
Bad people carried knives though. Murderers. The badness in me rose up as I walked through the dark with knife and sack. The knife began to bounce and wobble in my hand, so I carefully dropped it into the pillowcase, hoping the blade wouldn’t slice right through and cut my legs.
I walked deeper, then stopped by a tree whose outline had something human about it—its slender trunk—and I put both hands there. I caressed the sandpapery bark; it felt like an ash — us foresters know how to tell trees so well I could do it even in this light. Despite the night the air was warm and soft. I sat cross-legged under the tree and unpacked my pillowcase among the saplings that grew haphazardly wherever seeds had landed: some forcing their way, springing up from the ground even where there was hardly any light at all. The forest was a strong body pushing out life wherever it could. I put everything out on the smooth white of the pillowcase, one by one.
When my Gran was still alive she’d shown me things behind the others’ backs. She’d drop a leaf into the stew when Grandad wasn’t looking and wink — a quick sly movement. Girls came to see her sometimes, always when Grandad was out. For girls who wanted to catch pregnant she’d make miniature babies out of string and straw for them to drop in their pockets and keep there, secretly. She called it ‘invoking’ and said it had to be kept quiet because Grandad would disapprove. Everything you’d ever need was right here in the forest, she said — she’d never been away, not even as far as Gloucester. She died outside her cottage underneath the sycamore tree. They found her like a fallen doll against the trunk and said how sad it was she died alone. I think she’d decided it that way. There were sycamore keys in her hair. She had a lapful of them, as if she might have to try a hundred different doors to find where to go next.
When I was little I used to copy her. I’d bunch leaves and herbs together and mutter over them. I’d put a stone by the door for evil wishers to stumble on. Then I was only playing, but tonight I felt life tingle in my fingertips as though if I stuck a branch in the ground it might spurt green leaves.
The knife winked as I lifted it up.
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“What holds the novel together is the tremendous momentum of the story itself, which gathers pace with every page, hooking you into its strangeness and keeping you hooked to the very last word. As an exploration of the hold exerted on us by the past, The Doll Funeral is entirely successful, and for Ruby, the call of the dead ultimately brings understanding.” —Financial Times
“I felt instantly protective of Ruby; the teenager with a secret so chilling I had to check the front door was locked. Hamer’s brilliant storytelling made me read on for fear Ruby’s fate depended on it.” —Grazia
Reading Group Questions
The Doll Funeral is told from three different perspectives: that of Ruby, Anna, and Shadow. How does this narration-style change the way a story is read and understood? How does the reading experience differ from a more traditional style of storytelling? What narrator was your favorite and why?
The Doll Funeral opens with Ruby being told she’s been adopted. Ruby’s reaction—“I ran into the garden and sang for joy.”—is unexpected. What do you make of this reaction? And how does it define her as a character?
In retrospect, what do you make of Sylvia Plath’s line “Love set you going like a fat gold watch,” which serves as one of the novel’s epigraphs.
Hamer writes: “We are what our families have made us. But sometimes, you can escape that. You can close a door on it and walk into another room. This room is furnished differently. It’s all things you chose yourself.” What role does family play in The Doll Funeral. Is it something you can shut out? Move away from? Is it strictly biological, or can you call anyone family, and mean it?
Many have called The Doll Funeral a “fairy tale for adults.” Is this true? In what ways is Hamer commenting on or expanding the fairy tale?
I spend a lot of time reading mysteries, and I have yet to find one that has floored me like Kate Hamer’s The Girl in the Red Coat. In her stunning debut, Hamer takes a common mystery theme—a child’s abduction—and turns it on its head, using it as a gateway to explore love, loss, grief, and hope.
Hamer has a talent for storytelling that transcends the mystery genre. Her writing alone blew me away; it’s an added bonus that she applies her talent to crafting such a thought-provoking and complex mystery. In The Girl in the Red Coat, I found both a new favorite book and an author for whom I have the most sincere respect. I am beyond thrilled to share a conversation that Hamer and I had discussing her inspiration, her writing process, and the many facets that make her debut such a standout. Read on for my Q&A with the incredibly talented Kate Hamer, and be sure to check out one of my new favorite books, The Girl in the Red Coat, as soon as possible.
In your own words, what is The Girl in the Red Coat about at its core?
I read something once that was along the lines of—all books about missing people are crime novels, but they are also love stories. I think that’s very true of this book. At its core, it is about love, specifically the love between mothers and daughters, which I think is quite an unexplored relationship in fiction. That’s the basic answer. There are other important layers there aside from that—for instance, healing. For me, every single one of the characters in the book is trying to move themselves to a place of healing, although many of them are doing it in a terrible, messed up, destructive way.
Did you always intend to write a multifaceted story, or did certain elements develop during your writing process? How did you make sure these elements complemented each other, and didn’t compete for the reader’s attention?
I had the basic plot from very, very early on—it arrived at the same time as Beth and Carmel, the two main characters. I also knew the ending. In fact, I wrote the last paragraph around the same time as the first few chapters. I think this is emerging as the way I work. I’ve done the same thing for the book I’m working on at the moment, so I know exactly where I’m heading even if I’m not quite sure what I’m going to encounter along the way.
The bones of it were always there, but as I was writing complex layers began to emerge quite naturally. What or who do we believe in? What is healing and why do we seek it? How can ego be such a destructive force (Gramps)? How do you hold onto identity when everything has been blown apart? I’m glad you felt these elements worked together. Perhaps it was that I tried to always keep that core relationship in mind—Beth and Carmel and everything else is a facet of that. I think of it a bit like a ring—everything else functions as a stone embedded in that setting, so hopefully that acts as the anchor for the whole book.
From where did you draw your inspiration for the otherworldly components?
In your longer question you mentioned the relationship to fairy tales, and it’s really interesting that they’re part of your literary landscape, too. I also grew up on a diet of fairy tales, however they were not ‘sugary-sweet’ by any stretch of the imagination. My mother was a second-hand book nut, and among the books we had were many children’s books, including Victorian classics such as The Water Babies, Treasure Island, and an ancient copy of the Brothers Grimm tales. Because this was a different era, they must have been quite close to the original stories (I still have the book). Murder, crime, jealousy, revenge are all part of the staples, and I drank them in!
Certain stories, such as Hansel and Grethel, are absolutely terrifying—Hansel has to poke his fingers through the cage for the witch to check if he’s plump enough for the oven! These books spared children’s feelings a lot less than their contemporary equivalents might, so I was exposed to the “dark version” early on. The “other world,” where magic and extraordinary events occur, is given an equal weight. I think that had quite a profound effect on me. One of the influences on the book was Little Red Riding Hood. On a basic level, that’s sort of who Carmel is—she strays off the path and becomes lost and menaced by the wolves of this world.
How long did it take you to develop these two characters (Beth and Carmel), and how did you approach creating them?
Carmel—the image of her—came first, so when it started writing the first chapter, it surprised me somewhat that it was in Beth’s voice—Beth talking about her daughter, missing her, conjuring up memories of their time together. It sounds crazy, but it’s almost like they developed themselves once they were on the page. I didn’t have a hard time envisaging them. If anything, the challenge was with Carmel’s character. She’s a child, but I didn’t want her to sound too babyish or childlike because she has such strange, extraordinary qualities. Also, I didn’t want to patronise her. It was a question of getting the voice right for the age, while bearing in mind that she is a thoughtful child with pretty strong opinions of her own! This involved some tweaking—taking out the odd word if I decided it might not feature in an eight year old’s lexicon, without bowing down to the notion of making her a stereotypical child’s voice.
What’s the greatest challenge that you faced while writing the novel?
In all honesty, it was near the beginning of writing the book. It was taking the decision to stick to my original vision of the story. When you’re writing your first novel, you are essentially writing into a vacuum, which has its joys and its difficulties. There is a great deal of freedom, but it’s easy to question what you’re doing. Should I do this or that, or be writing to the market—that sort of thing. Once I’d made the decision that this is the story I really want to write, the one that’s burning inside me, I began to breathe easier and just got on with it. It was very liberating.
What made you want to apply your talent to writing a mystery in particular?
I’ve always loved the edge of experience, the unknown, books that send a shiver down your spine, but at the same time keep you reading because you want to find out how it all ends. I just naturally gravitated towards that sort of story. I really like the genre term of mystery, too. It sums up the sort of book I love—even if the mystery is just the relationships that have to be unravelled. The writers Helen Dunmore and Maggie O’Farrell are both particularly skilled at this.
Are there any particular authors who have influenced you as a writer?
Probably every author I have ever read! Some of my favourites include Hilary Mantel, Nicole Krauss, Graham Greene, Maggie O’Farrell, Kazuo Ishiguro, M.L Stedman, Stephen King. I love the gothic quality and sweep of Donna Tartt. I read Gillian Flynn and Lionel Shriver for their sheer edge of the seat qualities, plus the fact they never just go with convention. If I had to choose just one I think it would have to be Ian McEwan. He writes like an angel, and you never know what he’ll come up with next.
What are you reading right now?
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Apparently, it’s mega-famous in the States, but I only picked up on it hearing how many writers, like Stephen King, have been influenced by it. So far it’s very promising!
Kate Hamer is the author of The Girl in the Red Coat, which was a Costa First Novel Award finalist, a Dagger Award finalist, an Amazon Best Book of the Year 2016 and a winner of the ELLE Lettres Readers’ Prize. She lives in Cardiff, Wales, with her husband and two children.
Oh look, Kirkus is already saying amazing things about The Doll Funeral:
“Hamer has created a mystical world in which characters are haunted by specters of their present as well as their past, by the living and the lost. Her diction is lovely and tangible...A powerful paranormal novel.” —Kirkus Reviews