I’ve made no secret of the fact that I requested The Doll Funeral because not only is it set in the Forest of Dean, in Gloucestershire, where I grew up, but it also features a thirteen year old girl, named Ruby, in 1983, the year I turned thirteen too – in short the parallels were too similar to not see what The Doll Funeral had to offer.
Ruby finds out she is adopted on the day of her thirteenth birthday up until this time she had no idea. All she learns is that she was a few months old before she was taken in by Barbara and Mick. Living on the very edge of the dense forest, Mick is cruel and bitter following the loss of his daughter at the tender age of three and Barbara is ineffectual against his rages. Ruby is a fairly solitary child, she takes to roaming the forest often accompanied by ‘Shadow’ a young boy who she has seen for as long as she can remember, a boy who never ages. Whether he is real or whether he is a figment of Ruby’s imagination is for you to decide.
Ruby decides to invoke the spirits in the forest to help her find her parents. Part of this is to light fires and chant incantations and of course there is a funeral for a doll. Finding her real parents who will take her away is the only way she can see to escape the ire that she provokes in Mick, especially now her beloved Grandmother has died, she has no refuge at all.
One day she makes friends with an older boy, Tom, and in time visits his home, a house where his parents had decided to live off the land, but they are not there, just his siblings an older sister and a younger brother. Food is often rabbit and vegetables from the land, the money their parents sent regularly at first no longer appearing.
We know who Ruby’s mother is through Anna’s story, set in 1970 and split between life in London and that in the forest. This element of the story was fascinating and spurred me on when the weirdness of Ruby’s story got a little bit too much.
The writing is so evocative, and although I didn’t need too many prompts to picture the house backing onto the deep and dark forest, I think the author did a fantastic job of conjuring up the oppressiveness and remoteness of this area. It also recreated a time not in reality so far in the past, where children were left to their own devices, we certainly were, which went more than some way in explaining why Ruby was able to roam deep into the forest away from any living eyes.
I have made no secret of the fact that I’m not a big fan of ghosts in my reading, or anywhere else for that matter, but there was something incredibly appealing, not least the superb writing, which has made me make an exception to that rule for The Doll Funeral. I’m not going to lie, the things Ruby ‘sees’ form a large part of the book, but, taking into consideration the atmosphere of the forest as described by Kate Hamer, it worked for me. The story revealed is very sad in parts, and the parents of all the children are just too awful for words. Perhaps that’s why Ruby and her first person, present tense narrative stole a small piece of my heart.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to Faber & Faber who answered my pleas for a copy of this book ahead of publication in hardback, today, 16 February 2017.