The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer
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.
I’m not sure where exactly this book sits in the genre category, but that doesn’t really matter. It is really well written, often very sad and in its own way, quite compelling.
The Doll Funeral is the story of 13 year old Ruby’s quest to understand how she came to be part of a violent and dysfunctional family. The mother, Barbara is weak and ineffective against the angry tirades of her husband, Mick. Mick is a simmering cauldron of rage and often takes his anger out on Ruby physically as well as emotionally.
When she finds out she was adopted as a young baby, she sets out to find her real parents. Like most children, she weaves a fantasy for herself of who her parents might be and why they would have given her up.
A troubled child (and no wonder) she lives a solitary life and together with her ‘friend’ Shadow, takes solace in the nearby forest. Whether Shadow is an imaginary friend, or whether, as she comes to believe, she can see the spirits of dead people is an open question.
Wandering the forest, planning small ways to exact her revenge on Mick for his cruelty, she develops rituals to help her find the truth about her parents, looking for an escape from the harsh world she lives in.
Whilst in the forest one day, she comes across a young man called Tom. Tom and his sister live in an old and crumbling house. They are endeavouring, but failing, to be self-sufficient after their parents left ‘to find themselves, some years ago, leaving their children to fend for themselves. Their parents used to send cheques, but those have dried up some time ago and they are reduced to burning furniture and eating what they can grow or forage from the forest.
Interspersed with Ruby’s first person narration is the third person story of Anna, a young woman in the 70’s – pregnant through her liaison with a young man with aspirations to make it big in the city, he is a bit of a spiv. Anna will not marry her lover, knowing as she does that he will feel trapped into marriage by her pregnancy.
Her story and Ruby’s interlink until we finally understand how Ruby’s life and Anna’s come together and the novel slowly reveals its secrets.
This is a beautifully written book, both haunting and poignant, though in the end the darkness that it conveys is really quite disturbing. There are strong themes of mental instability, grief and hardship, leading the reader to wonder whether the fantasy is real or imagined. The darkness of the forest evocatively mirrors some of the darkness of the mind, and yet some of Anna’s story is as real as the poverty of emotion in the book.
In the end, I was not sure quite what to make of it. It’s a slow burn of a book that packs quite a mighty punch and its themes made me sad. I don’t know if I would recommend it, except insofar as it does contain some remarkable writing and some stunning imagery.
In essence, then – a beautifully written book that will not be to everyone’s taste. I think this one will stay with me for a while though.
The Doll Funeral was published by Faber and Faber on 16th February 2017