The Doll Funeral was a novel that attempted to be a great many things and proceeded to be none of them with great aplomb. It had the potential to be a touchingly deep story about domestic abuse and the difficulties of coping with adoption, both as the adopters and the adoptees, but instead, it got bogged down in a swamp of mystical weirdness that did nothing to help the story along.
Kate Hamer’s The Doll Funeral tells the story from the point of view of a teenage girl who lives with her adopted parents in the Forest of Dean. Her adopted father Mick is abusive but she finds solace among the trees and with a shadowy friend who has always been in her life. The narrative follows her search for her real parents, while simultaneously weaving the story of her parents and how she came to live with Mick and Barbara.
The way Kate Hamer writes is beautiful. She weaves her words with talent and imagination. She paints a great picture and really brings the Forest of Dean to life as a character in its own right. The forest plays such an important part in the lives of all its characters that her characterisation of it really made the narrative. The plot is bleak, dark and otherworldly with a cast of quirky characters who were interesting enough to keep me reading. The Doll Funeral wasn’t fast paced, or action-packed. It plodded along slowly and steadily and had a decent pace for a relatively serious novel that dealt with some pretty deep issues.
The big problem with The Doll Funeral is the way it chooses to deal with those issues. The paranormal elements of the narrative fell flat and didn’t serve to heighten Ruby’s story in any way. The weird Sixth Sense-esque skills that Ruby possesses simply made so much of the plot feel convenient and off-kilter all at the same time. The novel deals with abuse, poverty and mental illness. By adding the supernatural into the mix it somehow detracted from the gravity of what I feel the novel was trying to achieve.
Ruby herself wasn’t even particularly believable as a character. She is 13 years old at the beginning of The Doll Funeral but her voice doesn’t match her age. Her characterisation is much younger, as are the other ‘child’ characters in the novel. The adults of the novel are largely absent during the narrative which ultimately felt a little too convenient in places, and her supernatural abilities are never really explained in any way. This is a criticism I often level at works of supernatural fiction; your paranormal elements need to have their own internal logic to them. I need to be able to believe that these things exist and the way that they manifest themselves as a reader. In The Doll Funeral, they simply felt like convenient ways to move the plot along rather than as essential elements in the characterisation of Ruby.
That Kate Hamer can write with talent is not in any doubt. There was a lot to commend The Doll Funeral for, but ultimately I just felt like it was lacking in some sense. I needed it to be more or less of everything that it was. I either needed no paranormal elements or they needed to be rendered with more depth, or I needed more focus on the very serious subject matter of the novel with characters that were interesting for who they were, and not for some weird powers they either did or didn’t possess. It was a novel with great promise that simply didn’t deliver.