I meet Kate Hamer in a Cardiff coffee shop an hour before the Waterstones launch of Wales Arts Review’s A Fiction Map of Wales, at which the author is due to read her excellent short story, ‘The Visit’. With her debut novel just newly published by Faber, Hamer seems to veer, quite understandably, from a mood of elation at the book’s publication to a mood of anxiety relating to the book’s reception. Having just read the novel myself I assure her that she has nothing to worry about. The Girl in the Red Coat describes a young girl’s abduction at a children’s storytelling festival and the devastating psychological impact that this has on both the girl and her mother in the years that follow. If that doesn’t sound like terribly comfortable reading then, well, it isn’t but that is not to say that The Girl in the Red Coat is not an incredibly enjoyable book. Hamer has pulled off the remarkable achievement of writing a serious literary work, which is also, in a sense, a fairy tale, albeit a deeply sinister one. It is also a page-turner of the highest order. It is a book that, to a certain extent, calls to mind a classic work of children’s literature like The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, albeit only if it had been written with the psychological acuity and darkness of say, early Ian McEwan.
I tell Hamer that this is one of the things which I most admire about the book, the way that that it manages to be an incredibly engrossing story while simultaneously offering genuine insight into the nature of grief and parent/daughter relationships. One of the things that I sometimes feel is too often absent from contemporary literature is the art of storytelling. That sense of wonder that is present in the literature that we first discover as children, is maybe sacrificed by too many literary authors, seemingly out of a belief that punishing bleakness is the only honest form of witness.
Hamer agrees, saying that she misses that ‘sense of wonder’ too, but also the pleasure of simply reading a good yarn, adding that part of the reason that she wrote the novel was born out of wanting to write a book that she would ‘love’ to read herself. She cites Donna Tartt as an inspiration, saying that The Secret History was a big influence on her when it came out and she feels, a book that is and has been important to a lot of people. I realise that this makes a lot of sense in relation to the The Girl’s almost old-fashioned emphasis on story. But not just that, it is also present in a shared fondness for a certain strain of gothic creepiness.
I suggest that while I always really enjoy Tartt’s books sometimes I find I have to leave my literary taste at the door. By this I mean to say that while I think Tartt is a wonderful storyteller, I’m not so sure that she is such a terribly good prose stylist. Hamer disagrees emphatically with this, saying that for her, the way that Tartt deliberately avoids reading contemporary fiction helps to create a unique voice. The amount of time she takes to complete a novel placing her beyond current trends and fads in contemporary literature.
While I can see that there is truth in this, I nevertheless feel that one of the key strengths of The Girl lies in Hamer’s ability to balance a highly literary style with the old fashioned virtue of storytelling. Hamer, make no mistake, is a very accomplished prose stylist.
‘There were a lot of drafts!’ Hamer smiles.
This leads me to ask her about the genesis of the novel.
‘I had the image of a girl in a red coat before I had anything else. It wouldn’t let go of me,’ she says. ‘I had the idea that the girl was lost and I wanted to know why.’
‘I suppose the first thing that image made me thing of was Don’t Look Now’, I rejoin.
‘Yes’, Hamer replies. ‘And Schindler’s List too, of course.’
For some reason the connection hadn’t occurred to me. ‘You wanted the girl’s story to represent more than just itself? To be, sort of an archetypal story too? For all the grief-stricken parents, for all the lost children?’
She nods. ‘Yes. And, then, in a sense I wanted to write a modern fairy tale.’
I tell her that I had thought of Angela Carter while reading the novel but Hamer, though flattered, isn’t sure. Her feeling being that what Carter was doing with The Bloody Chamber was re-interpreting fairy tales, while what wants to do is write new, contemporary ones.
I tell her that I found the way that the story is told from both the mother and the daughter’s perspective very effective, especially once the girl has been kidnapped. I wonder if she had to do a lot of research into real life abduction cases?
‘No, I didn’t actually. I really felt it would be disrespectful to the families in those cases. So I relied on both my writer’s imagination but also… I am a mother myself. So I forced myself to imagine those circumstances from my own perspective.
‘…And the novel, at heart, is very much about mother/ daughter relationships.’
I nod. ‘Yes, I see that – the bond between Carmel [the missing girl] and her mother is very intense. Even when they haven’t seen each other for years, and Carmel can barely remember the girl she used to be she can still remember those words that her mother used to say to her….’
‘‘Courage, Carmel, Courage’’, Hamer says, finishing the sentence for me. ‘Those words pull her back from the abyss, yes. But Carmel is also a very determined, very self-contained girl.’ Hamer smiles. ‘She’s a very special character to me.’
‘Yes, she’s very idiosyncratic, isn’t she? Even before the kidnapping occurs she is saying and doing quite unusual things. You get the sense that she is fiercely independent because her mother has helped her to be that way.’
‘Yes, I don’t think she would have survived her ordeal if it wasn’t for that idiosyncratic temperament, that streak of independence.’
We talk about Carmel a little more and I begin to realise how immersed in the novel Hamer has been and indeed, she admits to having ‘lived every page’. This, I feel must be a key part of the book’s undoubted success. If a writer has lived every page herself, it can surely only increase the likelihood of a reader doing the same. But more than that I can see, the more we talk, how deeply fond of Carmel Hamer is, almost as though she had created a real person. And having read the book twice now, I don’t feel as though I’m being too crazy if I concur and say that yes, that’s what Carmel is. A real person. As real, at least, as literature will allow. She may be bound by paper and ink but in this character Hamer has created a girl whose thoughts, emotions and actions all resonate to such a degree that they leave both an indelible and a profound mark on the reader.
We finish our coffee and tea and make our way up The Hayes to Waterstones, where Hamer will both delightedly and anxiously notice several copies of her freshly printed book. A little later she will read from ‘The Visit’, her story for Wales Arts Review’s Fiction Map of Wales short story anthology, and another marvellously insightful study of daughter/ parent relationships. It closes with the narrator’s aged mother and father going out, late at night to look at the winter moon, their romance somehow rekindled and re-strengthened in their last years. The beleaguered narrator reluctantly goes out to join them, and they stand there like that, gazing up at the moon, a family full of wonder and the cold. Tied together by invisible, indelible links.
Kate Hamer will be reading ‘The Visit’ at the Swansea launch of A Fiction Map of Wales today (28/05/15), alongside John Lavin, Robert Minhinnick and Georgia Carys Williams. Swansea Waterstones. 4pm.