Hamer house of hor­rors

Kate Hamer talks dark­ness, death and the im­por­tance of the right colour of dresses with Jackie McGlone

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS -

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

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