A quote from Shakespeare’s Richard II begins this supernatural coming-of-age novel: “…even through the hollow eyes of death I spy life peering”. On her thirteenth birthday, Ruby discovers that cruel Mick and passive Barbara are not her real parents. Instead of letting the information devastate her, Ruby is elated. Surely her real parents must be out there, somewhere, searching for her? Blowing out her candles, Ruby wishes only for one thing: for her parents to come and find her. What follows this fateful wish is a journey deep into the woods, where Ruby meets three siblings just as lost and lonely as she is, and the answers to questions she never thought to ask.
The novel’s narration is divided between thirteen-year-old Ruby in 1983, living in the Forest of Dean with her adoptive parents; her birth mother Anna, pregnant, terrified, and seventeen-years-old in 1970; and the imaginary Shadow boy, Ruby’s one constant companion. It becomes clear very early on that there is something different about Ruby: she can see and talk with the dead. Ghosts and spirits seek her out, some helpful, some less so, some as overlooked as Ruby feels.
A gripping exploration of how the past can haunt us, even when we do not know the whole truth of where we come from, The Doll Funeral exists on a cusp for its majority. We meet Ruby at the threshold of her teenage years. She is looking for family, for home, for everything she has never had. The quest for these essentials takes her deep into the woods, to a long-forgotten mansion and the three children trying to survive in its cluttered, death-cold interior. It is with these three siblings that she begins to understand what home really is.
In 1970, Ruby’s young birth mother faces her own struggles, chief among them whether or not to put her baby up for adoption. Anna is convinced that the baby’s father, Lewis, would never accept either of them. In the end, she decides to keep the baby, and Lewis tries to do the right thing, proposing to Anna and whisking her and Ruby off to London for a fresh start.
The fairytale nature of the narrative creates intrigue, setting up mysteries it is in no hurry to solve. As the narrative progresses, the timelines condense. The truth about what became of Ruby’s young parents is revealed: a tragic tale of a loveless marriage and post-partem psychosis that ends with a car accident on the roads within the forest. The origins of Shadow and his connection to Ruby are similarly exposed, and every gap filled in. While the pace suffers slightly in the middle, when each of the three narrations reach their tipping point, the end is worth every minute. “I was a scavenger for family,” Ruby tells us. “And what I found was love and souls.”
As haunting as it is captivating, The Doll Funeral is an unexpectedly moving tale of finding yourself and what it means to come home. An excellent read for anyone who has ever searched, longed for, and lost.
Reviewed by Grace Smithwick
Faber and Faber Ltd, Melville House
Published On: August 15th 2017