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  • Kate Hamer teaches us about love and souls in ‘The Doll Funeral’

    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

    ISBN: 057131385X 

    336 Pages

     

  • A Review of Hey, Liberal! By Shawn Shiflett (Chicago Review Press Incorporated, 2016)

    By Claire Martin, Interviews Editor

    Hey, Liberal! may just be coming out when we need it most. Although writer Shawn Shiflett (Hidden Place) takes us back to the north side of Chicago in 1969, his brand new novel remains strikingly relevant to today’s issues.    

    Simon Fleming carries us through his ever-moving world during the late '60s. At just thirteen years old, he’s sent by his family of civil rights activists to attend Dexter High School, a chiefly African American institution, where he is one of few white students. His father, a prominent minister, answers the swelling call for change by insisting that his son be part of the fight for equality. With all the excitability of being a freshman, he takes on young romance, steers around watchful parents, makes a new set of friends, and even finds a spot on the baseball team. But in the midst of rising pressures throughout the city, Simon is involuntarily swept into the sparks of the riots. So when Officer Clark, a bigoted burnout of a cop working at Dexter, tries to buddy up with him, he realizes that passivity to his advantages will still make him enemies. Upon recognizing the separation from his friends, teammates, and peers, he must push forward to understand his intrinsic place in the community.

    Shiflett uses Simon’s character to expertly convey the great complexity and incredible tension of the '60s. In one poignant passage toward the end, Simon finds himself in the midst of a riot with a young African American woman silently walking next to him in hopes that he would block shattering glass. All the while, Simon is musing to himself.

    “A chunk of something whizzed past, nearly clipped his chin, and punched a jagged hole through the front door window of a flower shop. He flinched, recovered, and glanced inside the store just in time to see the gray-haired crown of someone’s head disappear beneath a counter display of bouquet arrangements. Too fucking close for—

    He noticed that the girl, after jolting from the near miss, must have fallen behind. Not my problem. Would she have cared about . . . But he hesitated, questioned if doing so made him a sap, just long enough for her to catch up to him again, and they moved on, their forward progress calibrated by necessity, convenience, pride, and even a baffling unity. In an instant, the sum total of his experience clicked. He was older.”

    It’s exactly this kind of reflection that propels the importance of Simon’s story. By throwing a curious and compassionate boy into the world of Dexter, two impossible to ignore racial realities of 1969 collide, and Simon becomes the unique platform to take us there. His imperfections highlight his growth, confirming that progress is not always linear, but often the result of taking responsibility. The title of Hey, Liberal! is a lesson that stands on its own. It suggests with certainty that Simon’s political battle cry is nothing more than a statement until he earnestly learns what it means to stand tall in a complicated time. We finally see him do this when he starts acting from an angle of genuine understanding, and Simon shows us a place of resonance that we are still grappling with as a nation today. Hey, Liberal! brings us into a world where we have space to explore our inherent roles in society and all of their essential and valuable nuances. Not only that, but it can be done through humor, poise, and unwavering honesty.  


    Claire Martin is studying Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago. You can find her working on creative essays, wandering through Printer’s Row after hours, and becoming fully nocturnal.