Crushed by Kate Hamer - book review: Hamer’s gift for incisive characterisation is remarkable

Crushed by Kate Hamer
Crushed by Kate Hamer

‘Look like the innocent flower, But be the serpent under’t…’

These resonant lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth speak volumes about a dark and coruscating novel from Kate Hamer, the award-winning author who hasn’t put a foot wrong since her 2015 debut The Girl in the Red Coat was shortlisted for The Costa First Novel Prize, followed two years later by The Doll Funeral, an editor's pick for Radio 4’s Open Book.

And now she brings us the astonishing Crushed… a gripping, psychological page-turner full of adolescent angst and written with the clever and compelling originality that has become a hallmark of Hamer’s searing novels.

Here, she focuses her sharp eye and the shadowy recesses of her brain on the mesmerising, Machiavellian story of three troubled teenage girls whose obsessive friendship turns toxic when their school studies of Macbeth’s three witches unleashes a deadly brand of raw and menacing female power.

Addictive and compulsive, this is a riveting read as Hamer drags us mercilessly into the complex minds of the three 17-year-olds, each on the cusp of womanhood, each with a needy mother, and each struggling to contain the fall-out from their turbulent emotions.

‘I thought murder, and murder happened. I thought darkness, and darkness was right there.’

Bath schoolgirl Phoebe is convinced that her thoughts have ‘the power to make things happen’ outside of her own self… even murder. And reading about how the witches galvanised Macbeth to slay a King has confirmed her suspicions.

Now a man has been murdered on the city’s Pulteney Bridge – deliberately run over and left to die in a mangled mess of metal and blood – and it was all of her making.

Some time ago, she had told her counsellor that her thoughts weren’t just thoughts, and now she must live with the consequences.

And Phoebe is angry, not least with her mother who reads her daughter’s diaries every day and tries to control every aspect of her life.

But there are others in Phoebe’s orbit to whom she is inexorably bound and whom she tests mercilessly... her best friends Grace and Orla.

Grace lives on the top floor of Bath’s only tower block where she cares for her wheelchair-bound mother who is becoming more crippled each week by multiple sclerosis. Orla, whose love for Phoebe goes far beyond friendship, is at the beck and call of her lonely and isolated mother who constantly wants her company.

And then there is the English teacher, Mr Jonasson, whose good looks have bewitched Phoebe. Any of them might find themselves caught in Phoebe’s crossfire, particularly as her thoughts have started looping out of control…

Hamer's highly-charged and atmospheric story tingles with menace and psychological intensity as events, suspicions and the girls’ secret passions and jealousies start to spiral into dangerous territory.

An impending sense of catastrophe pervades the pages from the moment that the rebellious and perilously egotistical Phoebe recognises that discovering the malign force of Macbeth’s three witches was like ‘a bomb about to explode.’

With a narrative that alternates between the intriguing Phoebe, Orla and Grace, readers are plunged into the lives of the three friends and witness how each girl, through different but equally damaging circumstances, has been effectively crushed by their mother’s needs or manipulations.

Hamer’s gift for incisive characterisation is remarkable and her elegant writing cannot help but cast its own spell as the story moves slowly but inexorably towards a chilling and totally unexpected denouement.

(Faber & Faber, hardback, £12.99)