Oct/Nov 2019  •   Reviews & Interviews


Review by Ann Skea

Kate Hamer.
Faber. 2019. 395 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 33666 1.

The idea of having a knife close by without him even knowing plunges through me in a shock... He will not see it. He will not know it's there. Only I will know that, how close it's got to him, and when he leaves, when I see his figure moving away across the fields, only I will know that there was another scenario already playing out in my mind...

This is part of the prologue to Crushed, which Kate Hamer structures like a play in three acts: The Fall, The Deep and The Cut. Beneath it all, runs the bloody thread of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Phoebe, who we meet at the start of Act I, is terrified by this "book full of hate." The murders, the witches, the black magic and the power all these have over Macbeth's mind feed her own terrors and mental instability. She wants to destroy the book but can't, because it is the book which she is meant to be studying in her high-school English lessons.

The voices we hear, and the thoughts and emotions which we share in this book, belong to three teenage girls: Phoebe, Orla and Grace.

Phoebe is fey, beautiful and disturbed. She hates her mother, who monitors her every move, secretly (or so she thinks) reads Phoebe's diary, and destroys Phoebe's belongings if she thinks they are unsuitable for her. Phoebe has learned to hide her thoughts and feelings. She writes deceptive entries in her diary and she has invented magical rituals to protect herself:

"Knives aligned, scissors pointing, even hammers in the shed have been placed with care to protect me."

Phoebe is clever, and she knows how to dissemble, but she has come to believe that she can control things with her mind. She devises tests to prove this and when she wills a murder and one occurs on the local town she believes she caused it, sees the bloody results, and is haunted by them.

Orla is in love with Phoebe, but Phoebe is fickle and unpredictable. She recognizes and uses Orla's needy love and sometimes reciprocates it, sometimes does not, depending on how the mood takes her. Orla's family life is stable and happy, but she desperately wishes for "...love so strong it can turn day into night, then back again... another life to be totally entwined with mine. To have somebody who is mine and mine alone."

Grace is less close to Phoebe and Orla, mainly because she is sole carer for her mother, who has late-stage MS. Keeping her mother alive is Grace's whole life. She is hard on herself, chastises herself for not doing better, not doing more. She neglects her own life and her growing attraction for a young man in a nearby flat, and she defensively fends off the offers of concerned social workers. But she does go to school, although she feels guilty about taking this "time-out"; and she does occasionally meet up with Phoebe and Orla.

At Phoebe's instigation, the three girls go to an isolated riverside spinney where they take LSD and perform spooky, scary, witch-like magic. They throw offerings into a "wishing bowl" made by twisted roots at the river's edge. They piss into it to strengthen the magic, and they each make a wish for what they want.

Grace's wish is for "My own life. I want my own glorious life but to have that, to want it, means Mum would have to die" She panics at the thought: "No. No, I'm not wishing that. Don't think I'm wishing that, spirits."

Phoebe wishes simply for freedom from her mother: "The house, the house. I want the house for my own."

Uncannily, and in unexpected ways, the wishes of all three girls come true. But what eventually binds them closely and permanently together are events precipitated by Phoebe's growing obsession with their English teacher and the terrible results of this.

Kate Hamer tells her tale with great skill, weaving the characters, emotions, and vulnerabilities of her three girls together so believably, it is easy to feel compassion and concern for them. At the same time, she tells a compelling and suspenseful story, chillingly full of its own dark magic.


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