At a crowded outdoor book fair, a mother and daughter are separated. In the I-turned-around-and-she-was-gone of a parent’s nightmares, 8-year-old Carmel vanishes. Did Carmel, whose teacher calls her “dreamy,” try to get lost? Or did the fears of her recently divorced mother, Beth, cause it to happen? These questions tear at mother and daughter as they navigate unfamiliar, foreboding territory.
In The Girl in the Red Coat, which made the shortlist for the Costa First Novel Award after its publication in the U.K., Welsh writer Kate Hamer seamlessly alternates between the perspectives of mother and daughter, capturing the ongoing effects of a tragedy in stark detail. Struggling to describe her daughter’s hair to police, Beth finally settles on the exact color of a brown paper envelope, believing that if she can just be detailed and precise enough, that will bring Carmel back. Hamer pinpoints the moments that take on a painful poignancy after a loss: Beth walking past Carmel’s school; seeing the red shoes Carmel wanted in a shop window; realizing the first time she went a minute without thinking of her daughter.
Hamer also thoroughly inhabits the voice of young Carmel, who is at once both childlike and preternaturally endowed. Taken by a man with a fanatical agenda, she is a pawn in a game she doesn’t understand. The author lets the reader linger in uncertainty and frustration as Carmel’s rescue seems further and further away. The tension builds, making the book one you want to finish, but also can’t bear to keep reading. As Beth marks the time—day 1, day 7, day 51, day 100—we hope, worry, fear, trust and doubt with her and Carmel. The Girl in the Red Coat is an engrossing, smart, well-paced read that surprises until the end.