Carolyn Percy reviews The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer, a mysterious journey of self-discovery with a unique dual timeline narrative.
Meet Ruby. She lives in a cottage in the Forest of Dean with her parents, Barbara and Mick. Mick has never fully recovered from the death of their first daughter – Trudy: his ‘sweet pea’ – and has no qualms about letting Ruby know she’s not a good replacement, often with his fists. Barbara loves Ruby and would stand up for her, if she could bring herself to stand up to Mick. But then, on her thirteenth birthday, Mick and Barbara reveal a secret: they’re not her real parents. Elated, Ruby immediately sets about summoning her real parents, sure that everything will be better with them. But she ought to be careful. Ruby inherited a lot from her loving and much missed gran, including two of her favourite books: Pilgrim’s Progress & Alice in Wonderland; her search for family will be a pilgrimage that will lead her down many rabbit holes. Because the danger of summoning someone? They might just answer.
Hamer first hit the bestseller lists – landing a place on the 2015 Costa First Novel Award and the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award shortlists – with her 2015 debut The Girl in the Red Coat, the story of Carmel Wakeford, a dreamy, slightly fey child who, after wandering off despite her mother’s warnings, is abducted from a children’s festival by a man claiming to be her estranged grandfather, and her mother Beth, who never quite gives up hope of seeing her daughter again. If The Girl in the Red Coat can be seen as a modern take on the Little Red Riding Hood story, The Doll Funeral goes even further into Brothers Grimm territory. The forest, for instance, is a prominent feature, a character with two distinct faces: a place of beauty and wonder (natural and spiritual) with the potential for adventure and sanctuary, and a place of secrets with the potential for menace – lone cottages straight out of Hansel & Gretel, silent ghosts. Both faces are epitomised by the Green Man, a figure from folklore and symbol that reoccurs throughout the book. Through her quest to find her biological parents, Ruby calls herself a ‘hunter of souls’ and the ghosts she uncovers are both literal – Ruby can see the spirits of the dead and they, consequently, are attracted to her – and figurative, as she uncovers the ghosts of the past. The other fairy tale quality of the book is the writing. Although the story is set in the 1980s and 70s, and Hamer does occasionally put in a reference to reinforce this (there’s a particularly adorable moment when Ruby discovers her first teen idol in Siouxie Sioux), the rural forest setting combined with her lush but precise prose achieves the rare feat of creating a story that is of its time, yet, at the same time, genuinely timeless, where the two blend seamlessly together.
Another dimension is added to the story by the inclusion of a dual timeline and occasional interjection of narratives from two other point of view characters: Shadow, the ghost of a young boy – the one whom Ruby has known longest – and Anna, the woman we come to realise is Ruby’s mother. They give us an insight into the bigger picture but do mean that some of the more astute readers may guess where some of the plot threads are heading. This doesn’t really matter however, as the story is less about the mystery – hence the inclusion of Anna’s narrative – than it is Ruby’s journey of (self) discovery. This type of quest would be much trickier to do convincingly set in an era where Ruby wouldn’t be solely dependent on the willingness of others to give her the information she requires.
The Doll Funeral has been one of the most interesting reading experiences I’ve had in a while: a book that, like the ghosts within, stays with you long after its finished.
Carolyn Percy is an avid contributor to Wales Arts Review.