I’m doing a writing course for the next nine months and the reading list is quite intimidating. There are nearly 100 books on it. It’s been less than two weeks and I’ve bought ten of them already. Obviously, I’ll buy more than I read and many will sit on the bookcase unread for years. But some will get read, and thus reviewed. Or what passes for a review on this blog.
The first of those is The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer. I read a three-page extract as part of my homework this week. It was well-written with a rich, evocative style and a real sense of menace in those few pages. Enough to make me want to find out what was going on.
It was not the story I thought it was going to be. From the extract I expected that sense of menace throughout and for the story to be how the protagonist, Ruby, escapes her predicament. It’s not quite that. Ruby learns on her thirteenth birthday that her parents are not her birth parents. For Ruby, this is good news. Her father is violent and hateful towards her and her mother weak and ineffectual. The terror of this situation is effectively conveyed in the first third of the book.
Then the tone shifts. Ruby stands up to her father and, thinking she’s done something irreversible, flees into the forest. After a few days she returns to find that her adoptive parents have decided to ship her off to an aunt. Ruby runs again. This time she finds other lost children and attempts to survive a winter with them. Interleaved with Ruby’s story is her real mother’s tale. Then there’s the thread where Ruby sees the spirits of the dead. In the end Ruby finds out about her real parents and they’re not much better than her adoptive ones. It’s kind of a happy ending, but one that feels out of kilter with the menace of the beginning.
Overall, I didn’t enjoy this much. I liked the first third. The writing is evocative and creates a claustrophobic and frightening opening, but it made promises the rest of the book didn’t keep. In the rest of the book I was more interested in the mother’s story. I liked the way there was always the suggestion that Ruby seeing spirits might have been caused by getting hit on the head so many times, whilst still conveying how utterly real it is to Ruby. I quite like books that resist classification. Despite all that, I found the ending unsatisfying and was disappointed not to read the story I thought I was going to read.