My name is Ruby. I live with Barbara and Mick. They’re not my real parents, but they tell me what to do, and what to say. I’m supposed to say that the bruises on my arms and the black eye came from falling down the stairs.
But there are things I won’t say. I won’t tell them I’m going to hunt for my real parents. I don’t say a word about Shadow, who sits on the stairs, or the Wasp Lady I saw on the way to bed.
I did tell Mick that I saw the woman in the buttercup dress, hanging upside down from her seat belt deep in the forest at the back of our house. I told him I saw death crawl out of her. He said he’d give me a medal for lying.
I wasn’t lying. I’m a hunter for lost souls and I’m going to be with my real family. And I’m not going to let Mick stop me.
Usually, the times when I get a Kindle version of a book, rather than in print is either a) when I’m travelling and I’ve already packed my bags chock-a-block or b) when I’m just too darn excited and need the book right now! Suffice to say that this book was the latter for me. I read The Girl in the Red Coat when it first came out, after attending a book meet-and-greet with Kate Hamer in my beloved university town (and where she completed her Master’s), Aberystwyth. I loved the book, I devoured it, and ever since I heard about Hamer’s second book, The Doll Funeral, I was desperately looking forward to reading it.
We follow protagonist Ruby, a thirteen-year-old victim of domestic abuse from her adoptive parent(s) as she is told the biggest revelation – Mick and Barbara are not her real parents. Ruby is elated to find this out and suddenly a whole new world opens up for her, one where she might belong to a happy, loving family. But of course, it isn’t that simple, and as Ruby’s desperation to find her blood relatives deepens, so does her connection to some otherworldly happenings.
As someone who grew up reading practically every book Jacqueline Wilson had ever written, I couldn’t help but be reminded of her honest portrayals of the trials and tribulations of youth. But Hamer took this theme that one step further into not only the adult realm, but also into what I thought was an homage to Hardy and Dickens, to the bleak Victorian novels and their depictions of struggling, hard-wrought lives of adolescents. Even the characters’ language and dialogue sounded dated or ‘adult’ when they’re only meant to be young teenagers. Perhaps this wasn’t Hamer’s intention, I’m not sure, but it certainly seemed like a vigorous nod to the genre to me.
I did feel that the theme of dolls throughout was actually a little heavy-handed and I would’ve much preferred a subtler reference to the title than the many instances given. However, the overall story and characters were enough to break through the slightly clichéd thematic link. For anyone who’s read Hamer’s first book, you’ll know that she’s a master at the split character narrative. With the perspective switching between Ruby’s chapters and another character’s chapters (unnamed, no spoilers!), the book builds up suspense well, leaving the reader on tenterhooks after each perspective change.
What Hamer does best is in her vivid descriptions. Her language is impeccable and she has the power to all at once dazzle, intrigue, and often unnerve you.
‘In the forest the seasons reverse. In summer the darkness is lush, the canopy taking the heat of the sun. In winter the light falls through the bare branches like light through bombed-out stained glass, just the lead work cutting into the sky.’
I was on edge throughout reading The Doll Funeral and it left me with an uncomfortable knot in my stomach more than a few times. Not only this, but Hamer also did well to incorporate the science-fiction/fantasy aspects throughout, and I was happy that they weren’t ignored or turned into the dreaded ‘it was all a dream’ or even worse, ‘you’re just straight-up crazy’.
Overall I found the book pretty riveting, but I can’t deny that with its gloomy outlook, it was at times a difficult read. I don’t think The Doll Funeral will be a book that I’ll be picking up again in the near future, or perhaps ever again, but that’s okay; some books only need to be read once to make an impact and this one certainly left an impression on me.