The title of Kate Hamer’s gripping debut novel, “The Girl in the Red Coat,” immediately recalls the explosion of similarly titled books and movies, from Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and its sequels, to “The Girl on the Train” to “Gone Girl,” “The Good Girl,” “The Danish Girl” and “The Girl With a Clock for a Heart.”
The plot isn’t all that original, either: the disappearance of a little girl in a red coat and some possibly paranormal goings-on that recall the chilling 1973 Nicolas Roeg film, “Don’t Look Now.” Also, the imagery of the red coat recalls the little girl lost in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List.”
There is an older and more primal antecedent, of course: Carmel, the 8-year-old who goes missing in Hamer’s novel, is a modern-day Little Red Riding Hood, a girl who strays off the path and into the woods and is horribly snatched away by a big bad wolf.
What kicks “The Girl in the Red Coat” out of the loop of familiarity is Hamer’s keen understanding of her two central characters: Carmel and her devastated mother, Beth, who narrate alternating chapters (reminiscent of the way “Gone Girl” and the innovative Showtime series “The Affair” move between characters’ points of view). Both emerge as individuals depicted with sympathy but also with unsparing emotional precision.
Growing up in a small English town, Carmel is a bright, dreamy, sometimes prickly child, who feels protective of her newly single mother, but at the same time bristles at her suffocating overprotectiveness. While Carmel’s mother and other adults describe her as “special” — imaginative, precocious, moody, given to sudden passions (like a craze for the color red) — Carmel is disdainful of grown-ups who “think when you’re a child that you’re just a mouse on the floor with a tiny brain.”
Beth tells us that she had premonitions that she was going to lose Carmel from the day the child was born; and now that her husband, Paul, has left her for another woman, Beth is more obsessed than ever with keeping a watchful eye on her daughter — clutchy behavior that only makes Carmel want to sneak off or break free. One day, Beth takes Carmel to a fair, and in the crush of people inside a bookseller’s tent, Carmel suddenly disappears. A strange old man tells her that he is her long-lost grandfather, that her mother has been in a serious accident, and that she is to stay with him until her mother recovers.
By cutting back and forth between Carmel and Beth’s perspective, Hamer not only builds suspense but delineates the complicated bonds of love, dependency and resentment that bind mother and daughter. Their separation underscores their need for each other while muffling memories of their sometimes tense, even testy relationship.
As in Ian McEwan’s harrowing but discursive 1987 novel, “The Child in Time,” the abduction of a girl signifies all the perils of the world — the terrible things that can happen not just in the dark, scary woods, but in the midst of ordinary life, as other people are eating or opening a window or just going dully about their daily routines. Similarly, the grief of a parent whose child has gone missing is conveyed to us with unsentimental candor and psychological detail.
Various versions of the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood” have been told over the years. Some, in which the young heroine is devoured by the big bad wolf, have been read as parables of victimhood. Others, in which she is rescued or escapes, have been read as tales of female empowerment — Little Red both triumphs over the wolf and, as a result of her ordeal, is reborn as a woman. In the case of “The Girl in the Red Coat,” much of the suspense Hamer generates is psychological — not merely whether Carmel will be found or rescued, but how this resourceful yet vulnerable girl might hold onto a sense of her identity and her past during her years in captivity.