Skip to main content

The Doll Funeral


The Doll Funeral

On the morning of her 13th birthday, Ruby learns that the people who she thought were her parents aren’t her parents at all. She couldn’t be more relieved. The revelation that Mick (whose beatings are so vicious she fears he’ll kill her) and Barbara (who’s impotent against Mick’s fury) aren’t her mother and father is a cause for celebration. Armed with this new information, Ruby sets off on a quest to find her real parents. “[T]hat night I became a proper hunter. Of true family. Of the threads that ghosts leave behind. A hunter of lost souls.”

Like her debut, Kate Hamer’s second novel is a sensitive exploration of the bonds that tie mothers and daughters together, and what happens when those links are severed. In 2016’s THE GIRL IN THE RED COAT, it was a kidnapping that separated a parent and child. In the ambitious yet uneven THE DOLL FUNERAL, it’s a death. And once again, there’s an adolescent protagonist with a strange connection to the world of the supernatural.

"[I]t’s Ruby who’s at the center of this odd yet engaging story, and in her Hamer has created a vibrant, intelligent heroine, by turns angry, scared and defiant..."

Ruby, like the boy in The Sixth Sense, sees dead people. One in particular, dubbed Shadow, has followed her since birth and has become, over the years, her “most faithful friend.” (He also narrates several sections of the book.) When Ruby is sent away after a violent altercation with Mick, it’s Shadow who tells her he can help her find her “real family.” He leads her to a dilapidated estate inhabited by three strange siblings who have been abandoned by their parents. Ruby finds a sort of home among these other forsaken children, but there’s an underlying sense of unease. Who are Tom, Elizabeth and Crispin? Why have they been left alone? Are they even real? And who is the mysterious Mr. Green Car who comes to tend the plants in a nearby greenhouse?

Ruby’s fairy tale-like quest to discover the truth about her birth is punctuated with flashbacks to the early 1970s narrated by her 18-year-old mother, Anna. While her daughter’s story has a dreamlike quality, Anna’s tale is rooted in the bleak reality of unexpected pregnancy, hasty marriage, poverty and mental illness. After their daughter’s birth, Anna and her husband Lewis move from an isolated forest hamlet to London. It’s in the “filthy, grimed over” city filled with “choking black fog” that Anna starts to unravel, her breakdown triggering the series of events that lead to Ruby’s adoption.

The story’s setting enhances the fantastical, fable-like feeling of the novel. Both Ruby and Anna spend their childhoods in England’s Forest of Dean, a beautiful yet spooky place, where the boundaries between the real and magical seem to be very thin indeed and “every journey…is an epic one, fraught with potential danger and adventure.” Again and again, these characters escape from and return to the woods, as they try to navigate the precarious transition from girlhood to adulthood.

The language Hamer uses to describe her characters’ journey is luminous and evocative, and she peppers THE DOLL FUNERAL with references to literature (ALICE IN WONDERLAND, TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES, PILGRIM’S PROGRESS), the Bible and Greek myths. But sometimes she sacrifices plot and character development for mood and striking images. Lewis, Ruby’s father, plays a key role in his daughter’s story, but he remains a shadowy figure on the novel’s fringes. Even Anna is a bit thinly drawn. Major actions take place off-screen, so to speak. We only learn the details of a key confrontation through Shadow’s somewhat muddled retelling of the incident.

But it’s Ruby who’s at the center of this odd yet engaging story, and in her Hamer has created a vibrant, intelligent heroine, by turns angry, scared and defiant as she tries to unpuzzle the lies the adults around her have been telling all her life.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on August 18, 2017

The Doll Funeral
by Kate Hamer