“The heart of the novel, again, is family, and what they hand down to you and what they don’t,” says Kate Hamer, speaking over the phone from her home in Cardiff, of her second novel The Doll Funeral (Faber, February). “It’s a dark coming-of-age tale about family secrets and how the past intertwines with the present.”
The book is the follow-up to her unusual and striking début The Girl in the Red Coat, which told the story of eight-year-old Carmel and her abduction and separation from her mother. It was variously described as a thriller, a psychological drama and even a fairytale. Shortlisted for both the Costa First Novel Award and the Crime Writers’ Association’s John Creasey New Blood Dagger, it has sold 72,231 copies to date through Nielsen BookScan.
As with her first novel, The Doll Funeral also deals with a mother/daughter relationship, but a very different one. It opens on Ruby’s 13th birthday, 20th August 1983, when her parents—the passive, ineffectual though well-meaning Barbara and her brutal husband Mick—reveal that they are in fact her adoptive parents who took her in when she was just four months old. Ruby is delighted: she has borne the brunt of Mick’s anger and violence for as long as she can remember, but now she knows her real parents must be out there somewhere. All she needs to do is track them down.
Ruby Flood is an unusual girl. She can see and hear things that other people cannot and it is this, and her belief in folklore and magic, that brings down Mick’s ire. Hamer’s descriptions of the domestic violence as seen through Ruby’s eyes are very powerful: “Inside, his temper took the form of bees. Attack bees, buzzing at the bottom of the stairs . . . The colour in his face was darker. It frightened me. The bees must be inside him now. His body seemed to bulge outwards in places where they swarmed.” Ruby is in a state of hyper-vigilance, Hamer says, “so she can almost hear [his anger] as her senses are so attuned to what’s happening in the household”.
But Ruby is a sparky and resilient child who, as Hamer says, “uses imaginative ways to survive”. At one point she sets fire to one of Mick’s favourite shirts and keeps the surviving metal collar tips as a memento. “I wanted her to be brave in the face of it, and fight back a little bit so she is not just a victim. I love the way she plots and has the desire to get her own back.”
Among the visions that Ruby can see, but Mick and Barbara cannot, is Shadow, a small boy who sometimes follows her around and sometimes disappears for weeks on end. He has darkness around his mouth and Ruby wonders if he was once her twin. She has also seen the Wasp Lady, and a woman in a yellow dress, hanging upside down from her seatbelt in a car deep in the forest. Sometimes the visions speak to her, sometimes they are silent.
Hamer says she wanted to write a “spooky” story but when she started she realised “that the only way to write about the past, and the only way to write these ghostly characters, was to make them real. Otherwise it just becomes something jumping out at you. I had a very, very strong feeling of the way the past intertwines with the present, and how the two go on resonating against each other.”
As Ruby’s story unfolds in 1983, the narrative moves back in time to 1970 when a young, unmarried woman named Anna realises she is pregnant, and that she has a difficult choice to make.
Both strands of The Doll Funeral are set in and around the ancient Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. Hamer explains she had the germ of the novel in the character of Ruby very early on, but “every time I tried to write it, it felt like it needed rooting somewhere. I tried to set it in a couple of places but it didn’t quite work.”
Fortuitously, while Hamer was searching for the right setting, she took a trip to the Forest of Dean. It is only an hour away from Cardiff, but she had never been before. “You go over this tiny old stone bridge from Monmouth and then suddenly you’re in a forest. It struck me as such an extraordinary place. It’s very atmospheric and magical—I just knew straight away that I’d found the location for the story.”
The forest setting gives the novel a magical, timeless quality even though it is set mostly in the 1980s. “I was brought up on fairytales,” explains Hamer, “and I think that informs a lot of what I do. That sense of somebody setting out on a path in the forest, and goodness knows what is going to happen . . . It’s quite embedded in my consciousness.”
In the novel, Ruby’s path through the forest in search of her real parents leads her to a large, decaying house where she finds a wild boy named Tom, his strange brother Crispin and their older sister, 17-year-old Elizabeth. The siblings have been abandoned by their parents who have gone to India to “find themselves”. The errant hippies were sending cheques for food, but these seem to have stopped and now the makeshift family are totally dependent on what they can catch and grow themselves. Ruby moves in—and it is a shocking discovery she makes there that will disturb her own family’s secrets and bring them to light.
Growing up in west Wales in the 1970s—“the real era of the commune”—Hamer and her older sisters knew people who lived in communes, and would go and visit. “You always got this slight sense that anything could happen—perhaps nothing as extreme as what happens in the book, but the idea of living an alternative lifestyle, ‘back to the land’, was a very potent idea back then.”
All the relationships in the novel are beautifully drawn but the most powerful is the one between mother and daughter. Hamer’s writing has a tenderness as she explores what might cause a mother to give up her child, how it might feel, and how a child might cope knowing that they have been given up. Hamer says: “It’s a relationship that really interests me . . . how parenthood and motherhood can make and unmake you, and the various ways it does. That is one of my occupations, I would say. As in my first book, [this novel is] showing parenthood in all its different lights.”