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"Twenty-First-Century Fairy Tale": Kate Hamer on "The Girl in the Red Coat"

It's every parent's nightmare: Beth, a single mother, takes her 8-year-old daughter, Carmel, to a local festival for some fun and The Girl in the Red Coatfrivolity and she vanishes. What follows is an unusual and terrifying journey for them both. Kate Hamer's sophisticated debut, The Girl in the Red Coat*, is no ordinary whodunit, nor does it resort to over-the-top prurience to get under your skin. In many ways, this makes it even more chilling, as Hamer masterfully manipulates the reader into anticipating the worst with each (frantically) turned page. But ultimately it's two parallel tales of survival: How does Beth press on in the face of paralyzing shame and worry? How does Carmel keep her wits about her in a frightening and complex situation beyond her comprehension? Here, Hamer talks about the significance of the color red in the novel, and the ways in which The Girl in the Red Coat is a modern-day fairy tale.

When I saw the beautiful U.S. cover for The Girl in the Red Coat, I let out a strangled yell. My husband came running thinking I'd had some kind of accident, only to find me waving my laptop around and shouting, 'Look at this! It's perfect, it's perfect.'

The red coat has always been an incredibly potent image for me. Red runs through the book like a ribbon, but it's the red coat that is the abiding and dominating symbol. I've gathered in my research that red appeals to people across all cultures (paintings featuring a lot of red gather more interest at sales and even fetch higher prices). An army of women from the British publisher Faber braved the wet and windy February streets of London, dressed in red duffle coats to hand out sample chapters of my novel to commuters at underground tube stations. They made lovely bright spots in the gloom of the London weather. Perhaps it's not just me that's entranced by the image!

Where did the obsession start? I'm an avid film watcher. Films influence my writing as much as books do – in fact, I always know when the writing is going really well because I can hear the film score in my head! One film that uses the red coat to full advantage is Don't Look Now, the 1970s chiller starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. Adapted from a Daphne du Maurier story, it centres on a couple who take a trip to Venice in the aftermath of a family tragedy. When the Julie Christie character keeps seeing the spooky figure of a child in a red coat disappearing down the dark alleyways of Venice, we are not sure if it's an apparition, a figment of the imagination or the ghost of the Julie Christie character's daughter, returned to haunt her mother after drowning in the pond of the family garden. The film made quite an impression on me. And of course the red coat in Schindler's List is engraved on the mind. Such a genius touch – using the red coat as the one bright spot against the black-and-white background, so that the girl wearing it is marked as an individual and yet is also a universal symbol.

The other red-coated figure who's been a huge influence is Little Red Riding Hood. I have a Victorian print of her that hangs in my hallway. After writing the book, or was nearly done writing it, I looked up one day and thought: Of course – Carmel is a kind of Little Red Riding Hood! She's strayed off the path, and now she's threatened by wolves.

I was brought up reading fairy tales and traditional stories. I don't mean the sugar-coated, happy-ever-after versions either. For some reason, our house had an ancient copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales. I know the exact publication date – 1920 – because I still have it. 'With 48 coloured plates by Harry G. Theaker,' it proudly announces on the cover. Well, all forty-eight of the coloured plates are seared into my memory, as are the stories – I drank them in as a child. It only seems odd in retrospect how blood-thirsty and often downright scary these stories are: a stepmother orders her stepdaughter into the woods to have her heart ripped out because the woman is jealous of the girl's good looks; a girl is forced to dance in her shoes until she dies of exhaustion; bad spirits and witches abound; and "Hansel and Gretel" is too horrible to contemplate. Each story is a supernatural thriller in miniature. I think they all instilled in me a love of scary goings-on, dark stories and books that keep your heart in your mouth from beginning to end. That's why, when it comes to The Girl in the Red Coat, of the many descriptions mentioned in reviews – domestic noir, psychological thriller, crime – I think the one that's pleased me most has been 'twenty-first-century fairy tale.'

*The Girl in the Red Coat was chosen as one of the Best Books of February.

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