Helen Dunmore, a prolific author, died in June 2017; The Greatcoat was published in 2012. Reviews from critics have been largely positive – for instance, The Times calls the novel ‘the most elegant flesh-creeper since The Woman in Black‘, and the Independent on Sunday ‘a perfect ghost story’ – but those from readers have been rather mixed. Regardless, one has to admire Dunmore for writing about such a wealth of different time periods and characters, from Second World War Russia in The Siege, to D.H. Lawrence’s experiences in Cornwall in Zennor in Darkness, and children’s books about an underwater land named Ingo, which is peopled by mermaids.
The Greatcoat is set in the East Riding of Yorkshire during the winter of 1952, the year and place in which Dunmore herself was born. Protagonist Isabel Carey, married for just two months to her largely absent doctor husband Philip, is ‘struggling to adjust to the realities’ of her new life. One night, when cold, she rummages in a cupboard in their rented flat, and finds an old World War Two greatcoat, which she covers herself with. The knock which comes at the window startles her; there is a pilot outside, wanting to come in. She is frightened on the first night, and hides; when it happens again, ‘She could still hear the tapping sound that had woken her. It must be her dream still turning, like a record after the needle had been lifted off. Tap, tap, tap. Soft, insistent, determined. It was a real sound. It was coming from the living room.’
Whilst, in their new home, Isabel and Philip have managed to escape the ‘narrow house where bed springs cracked like whips and the flush of the lavatory was the bellow of a caged water-dragon’ in which his parents live, conditions are little better. Their situation, from the very beginning, is far from ideal: ‘Upstairs, the landlady laughed. Too close, thought Isabel. They had divided the house into flats but they couldn’t quite separate the lives within it.’ The constant walking around of the landlady becomes rather a disturbing noise for Isabel, who feels trapped within their walls, and is openly scrutinised by the townspeople whenever she ventures outdoors. She feels out of her depth; she ‘looked all wrong. Too young, too soft, too southern.’
Throughout, we as readers are party to Isabel’s experiences only; she is an unmoving focal point for Dunmore. The first time she speaks to the airman, Alec, he comes into her house during the day. At this point, ‘her thoughts moved strangely, down paths that were foreign and yet entirely familiar. They were paths that had revealed themselves quite suddenly, as if a light had been shone inside her. She was Isabel Carey, and yet these were thoughts that Isabel Carey had never had. She knew what he meant, and she ought not to know it.’ Later, Dunmore writes: ‘He was a stranger, but she knew him. Every word he spoke and every shadow of his expression fitted patterns she had never seen before but which had always been there, beneath the skin of her life.’ Isabel begins to lose herself; real memories and those which feature the airman, which she is sure she never lived, converge and blur.
The Greatcoat is a slight book, but a thoughtful one, and the pacing works well. The story which Dunmore has woven has familiar elements to it. Whilst it has been categorised as a ghost story, it is rather unusual in some ways. I found myself pulled in rather early on, caring about Isabel and her plight, and wondering what would happen to her with the increased visits of Alec. The third person perspective which has been used throughout works well, particularly when Dunmore is building tension.
However, whilst the novel is a little chilling in places, it feels as though opportunities have been missed; at no point did I find it at all scary, and when it all came together, it feels quite obvious. Whilst the psychological impact of experiences upon Isabel are touched upon, they are not always shown with as much depth as they should have been. The Greatcoat is an easy book to read; perhaps too easy at times, for the darker elements of the novel can be missed.