Hamer house of horrors
Kate Hamer talks darkness, death and the importance of the right colour of dresses with Jackie McGlone
KATE HAMER has one of those radiant sunny smiles that cheer you up the moment you meet her, but then she says, quoting her Twitter feed, “I am mostly really happy though I write dark.” She certainly does, as anyone who has read her gripping, bestselling debut novel, The Girl in the Red Coat, about a missing child, knows.
“I honestly don’t understand what all that darkness in my work is about,” sighs Hamer, before adding, with a merry laugh, that it’s perhaps not a good idea for her to probe into this sombre aspect of her psyche. Best left a dark secret, perhaps? “Exactly! It all comes out in the books. I think I just write things out of my system,” says the 52-year-old, Cardiffbased novelist when we meet in a London hotel.
After selling more than 100,000 copies of the chilling The Girl in the Red Coat, which was translated into 16 different languages, she was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, the Bookseller’s Debut Fiction Novel of the Year, the John Creasey New Blood Dagger and Wales Book of the Year. Now, Hamer is back with her eagerly anticipated second novel, The Doll Funeral.
Fans will not be disappointed. One reviewer noted of The Girl in the Red Coat, “this book is unlike anything else”. That is also true of The Doll Funeral. It is so different and strange that it’s like no book you will have read, despite Angela Carteresque allusions to fairytales – in a friend of Hamer’s words “Snow White meets The Wasp Factory” – and spinechilling nods to Hamer’s passion for Japanese ghost stories and horror films. It’s Grimm stuff. But then Hamer admits her childhood imagination was fuelled by endless reading of the Bible – “I loved the language” – an old edition of Grimm’s grisly fairytales and Victorian ghost stories. “I love spooky books!”
The new novel is definitely spooky but it’s also about loss and love, while engaging with one of the central themes of The Girl in the Red Coat, motherdaughter relationships. This is a subject close to Hamer’s heart and one that she feels contemporary literature rarely explores.
Like her first novel, it has a dual narrative, switching back and forth between 1983 and 1970. The first-person narrator is Ruby, who has supernatural powers. She is haunted by visions and goes through fire and ice, accompanied by Shadow, a dead boy from the distant past. “Shadow was very insistent I tell his story – he was tugging on my sleeve, saying, ‘Me too, me too’,” explains Hamer. The third-person narration tells of Ruby’s young mother, Anna.
The writing, as in Hamer’s debut novel, is filmic, which is hardly surprising since she was a television documentary maker before becoming a full-time writer following the success of The Girl in the Red Coat. Both the latter and her new novel began with strong images. “I saw this image of a girl in a red coat standing in a forest. I knew somehow that she was lost. I think that came from Little Red Riding Hood – I honestly didn’t realise this until I had finished writing the book. The red coat is resonant of several movies, such as Schindler’s List and Don’t Look Now, which I saw at the age of 11, by the way. Very inappropriate! It stayed with me for a long time. I watch a lot of films and I’m very influenced by them.
“With The Doll Funeral, I could see this vivid image and I can see it still. It’s like I am a camera following this young girl, who is running out of the back door of a house into an unkempt garden. She’s singing – singing for joy because she has discovered that she is adopted. I’m not musical but I can even hear the score when these images come to me. So I saw this character some years ago but it took me a long time to write her – The Girl in the Red Coat took me four years to write – although I always have the first paragraph and the last line of the book I’m writing.
“Ruby’s story was really embedded with me, but I just couldn’t locate it. It needed a sense of place and I tried many places – the South Wales valleys, somewhere outside Manchester – but they just felt off kilter. Then about four years ago we went to the Forest of Dean for the first time. I knew immediately that I’d found the novel’s location. It’s very odd because it’s only about an hour’s drive from where we live yet we had never gone there.
“As soon as I went under the canopy of this amazing, ancient forest, I saw that it was mysterious and mystical, weird and wonderful, while being completely modern, with communities living there, because it’s a working place. I have got to know it quite well since – I think it has actually become another character in the book.”
Born in Plymouth, Hamer was 10 when her parents moved their family – she has two elder sisters – to Pembrokeshire. Her father, Bill, was an engineer, her mother, Christine, a primary schoolteacher. Hamer says she feels Welsh since she’s lived most of her life in Wales. Her childhood was happy and bookish but marked by a traumatic event when she was eight-years-old – the age of Carmel, the eponymous red-clad girl. She acknowledges that this incident has probably profoundly affected the way she writes about families as both of her books deal with girls taken away from their families.
“My parents went with my sister on a long trip up north – my older sister and I stayed with my grandmother – as they were thinking of relocating. Their van collided with a lorry. It was horrendous. My father had a broken arm but my mother was much more seriously injured – both her ankles were broken. They were lucky to survive. I didn’t see my parents, particularly my mother, for quite a long time. She was in hospital, then a rehabilitation centre.
“I’ve very vivid memories of that summer, wondering why the sun was still blazing down. My 15-year-old sister took over the running of the house and did a really good job. But suddenly there
My father had a broken arm but my mother was more seriously injured. They were lucky to survive