I’ve always been a fan of the Gothic genre, particularly since I was introduced to the classic novels of the style, like Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein. I’m fascinated by the many forms it takes and the countless interpretations that are as unique as the individual authors writing the novels. Although the traditional Gothic has a special place in my heart, I am particularly drawn towards more contemporary interpretations, by authors like Daphne du Maurier, Susan Hill and Margaret Atwood. Their particular strand of the ‘female Gothic’, so entrenched and bound up with everyday life, gendered societal expectations and the essence of being a woman, are perceptive and engaging, piercing right to the heart of issues that are uncomfortable and bringing the idea of female ‘otherness’ to the forefront of modern-day consciousness. I am always searching for authors that have taken up the Gothic mantle and run with it, using its timeless form to explore concepts of gender, sexuality and societal evils.
Kate Hamer’s second novel, The Doll Funeral, therefore jumped out at me when I encountered it during my regular library haul. Not only is its cover striking, evoking ideas of nature as a beautiful living being, it also appealed to me after I had only read the first few lines of the synopsis. The novel centres on Ruby, a precocious 13 year old who lives on the edge of the New Forest with the tyrannical Mick and the meek Barbara. On her 13th birthday Ruby receives some shocking news that turns her world upside down – Mick and Barbara are not her real parents. She is giddy with happiness at first, overjoyed that she is not tied to them by blood, that she is not of their ilk; but soon reality hits and she has to face the journey towards reuniting with her birth parents entirely alone. Ruby is a tragic character who has not had an easy life, but she has a steely resolve older than her years. From the day she discovers that she is not Mick and Barbara’s daughter, Ruby is determined to locate her real parents and demand of them the truth about her origins. However, there are more forces working against Ruby than the rage of Mick and the reluctance of Barbara; she soon realises that the world around her is not as binary as human and animal, living or dead. Ruby has a unique gift, but it often presents itself to be more of an obstacle, or even a curse.
The Doll Funeral is a coming of age novel infused with Gothic elements. The setting of the New Forest broods over the whole novel, acting both as a sanctuary for Ruby and as a sinister presence, hiding secrets and ghosts from the past within its depths. The novel moves between Ruby’s narrative, set in the mid-1980s, and Anna’s (Ruby’s birth mother), pulling the story back to the early 1970s. Through the two unique female voices the story of Ruby’s ancestry unfurls, revealing a web of secrets and tragedy, with the dark figure of the forest at the centre. Their stories explore the bond between mother and child, which, although stretched through generations, is proven to be a lifeline, unbreakable and timeless. Other echoes intersperse the main narrative, too. Ruby’s companion from birth is Shadow, a mysterious child-like figure with a dark past. Shadow offers an alternative insight into the world from Ruby’s point of view, which is muddled with beings of uncertain origins and intentions. These float in the periphery, threatening to take over and demanding attention from Ruby, sometimes with alarming results.
The novel has a dreamlike quality, with a style reflective of Daphne Du Maurier’s fiction. There is darkness to Ruby’s story, which is interwoven with elements of realism, magic and the supernatural, intriguing the reader and pulling them headfirst into the action. The Doll Funeral has an illusory feel, at times harrowing, at others joyful. Its steady pace allows the reader to become fully immersed in the story, and in Ruby’s mind; although slow at times, there are twists and turns aplenty and the reader is plunged into a vivid, sensory experience, rich with detail of the sights, sounds and smells of Ruby’s world. The Doll Funeral is an inimitable novel, a gem in the canon of modern Gothic fiction, able to send chills down the spine, provoke tears and rage, and immerse the reader in the story of a lonely young girl on a journey to discover where she belongs.