Helen Dunmore has become one of those writers I keep accidently forgetting about – and then each time I read one of her novels I find myself wondering why it is I haven’t read more of them, at the same time pleased that I still have a fair number to go.
The Greatcoat is a kind of ghost story – Helen Dunmore was apparently asked by Hammer to write a ghost story – and this is it. Now I am firmly in the ‘ghosts don’t exist – it’s all rubbish’ camp. Still, a well written ghost story is a marvellous thing, and this is certainly a very well written ghost story. Admittedly I read it with a part of my mind working on finding a rational explanation – the over stimulated imagination and loneliness of a newly married young woman, haunted by her wartime adolescence the most likely. Maybe searching for a rational explanation is the wrong way to read these kinds of novels, and maybe that’s why I don’t read that many.
The novel opens with a prologue in which we meet a group of wartime air force men setting off on operations. Alec is their skipper, the men all look to his lead, they’re young men, hoping to hell their luck holds – but they all know it’s bad luck to think that way.
In the Yorkshire winter of 1952 Isabel Carey is a young doctor’s wife, struggling to adjust to the realities of her new life. She and her new husband, Philip are hoping to get a home of their own before too long, but in the meantime they are renting part of a house that has been divided into two flats. Their landlady, the peculiar Mrs Atkinson lives upstairs, she paces the floor at all hours, and watches Isabel as she comes and goes. Isabel is always cold, her husband; working long hours in a practice that covers many miles, is never awake for long enough to feel the cold, while Isabel lies awake, shivering, listening to the pacing footsteps of Mrs Atkinson. One night Isabel rummaging in an old wardrobe to find something to spread on the bed for extra warmth finds an old greatcoat, large and warm she spreads it over her side of the bed and snuggles down to sleep.
“There was a dry reek of mothballs, and old, woollen cloth. But there was also a faint, acrid tang of burning, and then a smell which flooded Isabel with her childhood. Long grass; sweet hay; the prickle of stalks on the back of her bare legs as she lay and looked up into the vast, polished East Anglican sky. She heard the drowsy chirr of crickets, and the skirl of skylarks. She lay there hidden, like a hare in its form. She was perfectly happy. Far off another noise began: deep, thunderous. She knew that they were testing the engines.
Slowly Isabel lifted her head and came back to the room. It was impossible that a greatcoat bundled away in a cupboard for years could smell of summer fields.”
Later, after Philip has gone out on an emergency, there is a knock on the window. Outside is a handsome RAF man wanting to come in.
Although it is really not that many years since the war, to Isabel a very young woman, who was an adolescent during the war, it already seems remote. During the war, Isabel had lived with her aunt and cousin in Suffolk near another airfield, she well knows the sound of the aircraft as they head out on a mission. Now, spending hours by herself in a house she doesn’t much like, close to another, now, deserted airfield Isabel is frequently reminded of those days, the sound of the planes leaving and returning.
As her mysterious visitor comes back again and again, a man she feels she knows when she first sees him, Isabel begins to have memories that are not her own. The man’s name is Alec, and he talks of heading out on another ops – Isabel takes everything he says as being perfectly normal, they speak of things she previously had no knowledge of. As time goes on, Isabel becomes, more and more confused, and still the greatcoat is spread on top of her bed at night. Gradually Isabel draws closer to this man, his visits become everything to her and she has started hiding things from her husband. Slowly Isabel begins to feel she must try to get back to herself, involve herself in the local community of which she had been so nervous, become a good doctor’s wife, and have a child. Philip buys Isabel a hideous eiderdown to keep her warm, and Isabel decides to get rid of the greatcoat. She only hopes it isn’t too late.
“All that purpose and protection was folding around her, but it could turn against her too. She had only to open her mouth and he would hate her. She was afraid that some force stronger than herself, some demon of self-destruction, would put words into her mouth and make her speak out.”
Naturally things are not as straightforward as all that – the past reverberates still – and Isabel struggles to free herself from it.
If I am honest – but not being a great connoisseur of ghost tales – I didn’t find this story to be particularly scary or even that chilling – although it is well written, atmospheric and a good quick read. Helen Dunmore’s characters are always so well explored, and I loved the way Dunmore portrayed the world of a new 1950’s wife. Ridiculously – it must seem to us – Isabel’s husband is against her going back to work despite her excellent qualifications, her boredom, loneliness and social isolation are tangible – and it is this aspect that I found particularly interesting.