The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer is a dark, despairing and at times confusing tale of identity and the creeping links of family and genetics across the generations. It is about the difficult adoptive families, about ‘not fitting in’, and how blood families sometimes don’t work either. Ultimately, family is where you can find it and make it.
Ruby’s mother Barbara is a cleaning lady who nicks small things she thinks won’t be missed. Father Mick knocks Ruby around, forcing her to miss school until the bruises fade. Then on her thirteenth birthday, they tell her she is adopted. Ruby’s response is to run into the garden and sing for joy. Of course nothing is as simple as it appears.
Ruby, determined to find her birth parents, runs away and makes her way to the creepy home of a strange schoolfriend Tom. I found the thread of Tom, Crispin and Elizabeth rather unrealistic and at times gruesome. It does however act as an alternative take on dysfunctional families, wild children and parental neglect. The budding relationship of Tom and Ruby, two outsiders, is touching.
Ruby’s tale is alternated with that of her mother Anna who falls pregnant as a teenager, first abandoned and then reclaimed by her boyfriend. Although I empathised with Ruby, I found her viewpoint rather mature at times for 13. For me, the story of her search for family was complicated by her ability to see ghosts. She doesn’t know their names or identities, so she gives them names such as Wasp Lady and Shadow. Shadow is the most present, speaking with Ruby and passing her information. At times, Shadow seems threatening, at others like a brother/sister. When the identity of Shadow is finally revealed, it was underwhelming and an aside from the key storyline. Almost as if the author had too many good ideas and didn’t want to drop anything. That said, the cover is beautiful.
The portrayal of the forest, both Ruby and Anna grew up in the Forest of Dean, is vivid, at times both reassuring and threatening. The significance of the title, though, passed me by, and I would have liked more of Nana’s folk magic.
This is not a novel I can honestly say I enjoyed. It considers difficult, slippery topics and so, thankfully, there is no neat ending.
‘The Doll Funeral’ by Kate Hamer [UK: Faber] Buy at Amazon
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