June 6, 2017
Summer fiction preview: The Doll Funeral
by Melville House
This week, as dig up our sunglasses and try to remember where left the slip ’n slide last August, we’re taking a look at some of the books we have forthcoming in the next few months.
The Doll Funeral is Kate Hamer’s follow-up to 2015’s hugely acclaimed The Girl in the Red Coat, and it’s already generating some buzz — in the Guardian, Melanie McGrath writes that it “evoke[s] both Jeanette Winterson and Ian McEwan,” praising “the originality of the voice and the novel’s moving mysteriousness, along with the empathy Hamer builds in the reader towards her scrappy, stubborn heroine.” She goes on to add, “This is an elegiac and uplifting novel about the indissoluble bonds between mothers and daughters and a reminder of how the imagination can set you free.”
Not half bad! By now you’re probably pretty excited—God knows we are—so, without further ado, here’s an early excerpt from the book. The first section, from 1970, focuses on the pregnant, young Anna. The next part, after a jump ahead to 1983, finds Anna’s biological daughter, Ruby, as a teen, reeling from the fresh revelation that she’s adopted. Get acquainted now, and be really excited for August 15, when the book’s out.
2 January 1970
Anna takes the turn up to the main road. It’s a bright day, and the sky appears eternally high as it always does in winter when it’s clear and blue.
Fear quickens her step. She’s not had her period for—how long—she counts out loud—seven, eight weeks? Is it her imagination or does she feel a little swollen already; her flat stomach curving out slightly, visible from the side, like the bulbing of a convex mirror? She’s convinced that she can feel something tiny but determined clamping onto her insides, sticking there, strong and hardy.
She shoves her hands deep in her pockets as she passes the telegraph pole and the shed by the side of the road. The copper beech is winter threadbare now. Old Turner used to be there every day with his fold-out chair and thermos. He’d built the shed himself — back at the dawn of time. He puttered about on the common land, growing potatoes, swedes, cabbages, half of which he gave away. Nobody cared: things were freer when Anna was a child. Today there’d probably be a council eviction for building without planning. Now the structure looks ready to collapse, so she sidesteps it in case it happens the moment she passes.
She walks faster, making her boots ring out on the road and swinging her arms vigorously beside her. Perhaps she can break the thing loose, shake it out from its soft, pink nest. She starts trotting, purposely banging the soles of her feet onto the rough country road so the vibrations jar through her body; as the hill steepens she turns the trot into a run—a hobbled movement because of her skirt. At the top of the valley road she stops, cheeks flushed, out of breath, and looks out at the forest below. Bare branches bend and creak in the breeze. She checks her body again, exploring her stomach in its pencil skirt with her fingers. No, it’s still there; she knows it’ll take much more than a brisk run to break this loose. It’s much stronger than she is.
23 August 1983
I felt sure, the more I thought of it (and that’s about all I’d been thinking of since my birthday), that my real parents did not want to give me up. I expected that went double for my mother because mothers shouldn’t want to give their children away. I refused to believe it could’ve been easy. There must have been a reason for it, something completely terrible. They’d chosen my name, Ruby, and—the way I saw it—why would you choose a name like that for a child you didn’t want?
Three nights after my birthday the moon rose as fat as a peach. I watched it turn the forest canopy into a shifting silver sea.
Anything seemed possible in this light. My real parents, my flesh and blood, could be near, even living right here in the Forest of Dean. I just needed a way to find them.
I left the pillow bunched in my bed, took the pillowcase with me and crept through the moonlit spaces of the house. On the bookshelf were two books from my Gran — an aged copy of Pilgrim’s Progress that used to belong to her and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which she’d given me for my ninth birthday. I had the idea to open one on a chance page and see if somehow there might be a message from her there within the story. I hesitated, then picked Alice, thinking even at that moment I’d probably chosen badly with these tales of disappearing cats and lizard gardeners. I put it in my pillowcase sack. I found the same sharp kitchen knife that had diced up my birthday cake and used it to fillet some ears of barley from the dusty flower display under the mirror. I dropped them in the sack among the other things — horse chestnuts from my bedside drawer, torn up grass, cloth and red thread from Barbara’s workbox.
The flowers of the evening primroses were wide open and floated pale above the grasses. The back gate creaked on its hinges. It led directly into the trees. As I glided through the forest in my plain white nightie I thought, with my sack and this knife sticking out in front of me, if anyone sees me they’ll think I’m a robber, and it made me brave, this looking-like-a-robber girl and the belief that I could strike fear into the hearts of others.
Bad people carried knives though. Murderers. The badness in me rose up as I walked through the dark with knife and sack. The knife began to bounce and wobble in my hand, so I carefully dropped it into the pillowcase, hoping the blade wouldn’t slice right through and cut my legs.
I walked deeper, then stopped by a tree whose outline had something human about it—its slender trunk—and I put both hands there. I caressed the sandpapery bark; it felt like an ash — us foresters know how to tell trees so well I could do it even in this light. Despite the night the air was warm and soft. I sat cross-legged under the tree and unpacked my pillowcase among the saplings that grew haphazardly wherever seeds had landed: some forcing their way, springing up from the ground even where there was hardly any light at all. The forest was a strong body pushing out life wherever it could. I put everything out on the smooth white of the pillowcase, one by one.
When my Gran was still alive she’d shown me things behind the others’ backs. She’d drop a leaf into the stew when Grandad wasn’t looking and wink — a quick sly movement. Girls came to see her sometimes, always when Grandad was out. For girls who wanted to catch pregnant she’d make miniature babies out of string and straw for them to drop in their pockets and keep there, secretly. She called it ‘invoking’ and said it had to be kept quiet because Grandad would disapprove. Everything you’d ever need was right here in the forest, she said — she’d never been away, not even as far as Gloucester. She died outside her cottage underneath the sycamore tree. They found her like a fallen doll against the trunk and said how sad it was she died alone. I think she’d decided it that way. There were sycamore keys in her hair. She had a lapful of them, as if she might have to try a hundred different doors to find where to go next.
When I was little I used to copy her. I’d bunch leaves and herbs together and mutter over them. I’d put a stone by the door for evil wishers to stumble on. Then I was only playing, but tonight I felt life tingle in my fingertips as though if I stuck a branch in the ground it might spurt green leaves.
The knife winked as I lifted it up.
The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer
ON SALE: August 15, 2017