Source: Review copy
Publication: 16 February 2023 from Faber & Faber
My thanks to Faber and Faber for an advance copy for review
Lost, she narrowly escaped disaster.
Beth is desperate to return to normality. After a years-long ordeal, her daughter is finally home and safe. But Carmel has questions she can’t ignore about the cult that kidnapped her, and about the preacher who gave her another girl’s name.
Found, she must survive a miracle.
Digging into her past, Carmel uncovers secrets which suggest that she wasn’t the only lost girl – and which puts her in danger all over again. While her mother struggles to salvage the safety they’ve only just found, Carmel tries to come to terms with who she has become. One question, a mystery at the heart of her disappearance as a child, haunts her:
What happened to the other lost girls?
Kate Hamer is a beautiful writer. She conveys beautifully both the fragility and the strength of her characters. Reading about Carmel and her mother, Beth is like walking on thin ice. You find yourself holding your breath, wondering which one is going to crack first and plunge into deathly cold waters.
I have not read The Girl in the Red Coat and did not realise The Lost Girls was a return to those characters. I’m not sure it matters, because from the beginning I was caught up in Kate Hamer’s exquisitely painful prose.
Carmel Wakeford was kidnapped when she was only 8 years old. Taken out of the country to the United States, she was taken by a Preacher who used her in his travelling preaching sessions. He renamed her Mercy and together they spent 5 years visiting mainly rural fairs.
Then Carmel was rescued and brought home to her mother, Beth, and the pair now live in England. But Carmel has to live with the blaze of publicity that accompanied her return and to know that her life is the stuff of tabloid fodder that never really goes away. She will forever be that ‘lost girl’.
Beth doesn’t really know how to relate to Carmel. She doesn’t really understand what Carmel went through and she knows her daughter is a very different young woman to the girl she lost. But though Carmel left a trail pointing to her real name wherever she went in the States, she knows that she was not the first Mercy to have preached alongside this man. On her return to her mother, isolated, angry at her mother for losing her, she becomes obsessed about what could have happened to the other Mercy – the one she replaced.
The Lost Girls is told from the perspective of the original Mercy, Carmel and Beth. Mercy’s story is harrowing. She has a harsh upbringing and turned to the church as a way of finding a loving home as much as anything. Each of these women is searching for something to anchor them and make them feel seen and comfortable in their situations.
Carmel is so desperate to find out what happened to Mercy that she does the unthinkable and in so doing, she fractures the uneasy peace between mother and daughter.
The Lost Girls explores, sometimes very painfully, the relationship between mothers and daughters. No-one blames Beth for Carmel’s disappearance more than Beth herself. As both women struggle to re-establish their relationship, the reader feels the pain that flows through both these damaged characters. Yet there is redemption in that pain and Carmel’s quest for answers is her way to help herself repair the emotional connection between her and her mother.
Verdict: Poignant and beautifully expressed, The Lost Girls is an intense and unsettling novel about the complex relationship between mothers and daughters; about the pain and redemption to be found in facing trauma and learning how to survive. It is haunting, emotional, and sometimes really painful and it touches the heart. It has fantastic writing, superior plotting and is a deeply engrossing read.
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Kate Hamer’s first novel The Girl in the Red Coat was shortlisted for The Costa First Novel Prize, the British Book Industry Awards Debut Fiction Book of the Year, the John Creasy (New Blood) Dagger and the Wales Book of the Year. It was a Sunday Times bestseller. Kate won the Rhys Davies Short Story Prize and she has had short stories published in anthologies such as ‘A Fiction Map of Wales’, ‘New Welsh Short Stories’ and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She’s written articles and reviews for The Independent, The Mail on Sunday and The New York Times. Kate grew up in the West country and rural Pembrokeshire and now lives with her husband in Cardiff.