Set in 1952 in Yorkshire, a young couple move into a rented flat. Philip is the new, young doctor while his new wife Isabel struggles with the isolated life with no friends or family and Philip's frequent absence due to the demands of his job. Things take a turn to the spooky when, waking from under the warmth of the old greatcoat Isabel finds in the flat, she hears a tapping at the window and finds there an RAF pilot, Alec, who appears to know Isabel intimately.
Ghost stories are not what you might expect from Helen Dunmore and this novella has her characteristic intelligence and strong writing. The central plot structure, of which I can of course not reveal, is very clever and the ending is suitably satisfying. However, the reader is left confused for much of the short book about time-frames (without giving too much away, we switch between 1952 and World War 2) and the brevity of the book doesn't allow for much beyond the basic characterization facts of the protagonists.
Of course some of the reader's confusion is justified in the sense that Isabel herself is equally confused, although her fascination with Alec overrides any great questioning on her part. It is of course ridiculous to expect a ghost story to fit with reality, but there are certain areas where Isabel appears rather too accepting of strange events.
Dunmore effectively captures the haunting feeling of the story but my sense was that we see rather too much of the workings of the story rather than getting a sense that the story develops organically. I could always see the author's hand at work in driving the story forward. This isn't an altogether bad thing when that author is someone of Dunmore's calibre, but I never felt caught up with Isabel's plight although the story itself is compelling and clever. I just felt a bit too distanced from it.
Despite feeling ahead of Isabel with large parts of the story, the ending though was unexpected and even a quite moving. As a brief, very well constructed ghostly novella, it ticks all the boxes, but probably as much due to the length of the book as anything, it isn't as involving as I would have liked.
What a beautifully produced book. The cold blue cover is just entrancing, with the Second World War pilot standing outside the frosty window peering in imploringly, his hand flat against the pane.
I always deeply enjoy Helen Dunmore so this was set to be my treat.
So it was, quickly catching me up in the realistic details of an abandoned temporary airbase after the hostilities were over. Reading about the fifties is always intriguing; the emergence of hope again after the austerity and dreadful experiences of war.
The mysterious landlady pacing the floor above the newly wed young couple's rooms; the pressing weight of the greatcoat on the bed, the double life of fragile Isabel, left alone for such long periods while her doctor husband dashes off to succour the sick.
What emerges from the plot is illuminating and believable, the curtain between life and death being lifted and parted, dramatic events leaving their scar, the cruel vengeance of a damaged lover perhaps refusing rest to a tortured soul.
All the twists for a tremendous tale, we are let down perhaps only by its brevity and lightness. A clever, deep piece of writing, which must be appreciated for what it is, a short book, novella, an exquisite pleasure.
Helen Dunmore has long been one of my favourite novellists, so I was intrigued to read this new ghost story from her. A novella in length, it is a moving and carefully crafted story.
Isabel is the new, young wife of Philip Carey. Only married for two months, Philip has a new job as a doctor at Kirby Minster, a country town. Their first home together is a ground floor flat with a creepy landlady. It is 1952 and England is still in the grip of rationing and memories of the war. Isabel's own parents died in Singapore and she is feeling isolated and a failure. What woman cannot relate to the feeling that other women are judging and looking down at her attempts to be the adult wife she almost feels she is pretending to be? As her steak and kidney pudding goes wrong and the butcher gives her the fatty cuts of meat, Isabel and Philip grow distant.
Then Isabel discovers an RAF greatcoat in a cupboard, when she is cold one night, and is woken by a man tapping at the window. The man knows her name and she knows his. As Isabel loses touch with her husband, she wonders whose memories she is having and why she is driven to walk to the deserted airfield outside the town. This is not a scary book, but it is very atmospheric and sad, with good characters and sense of place and time. Helen Dunmore is really one of the greatest authors we have and she has pulled off this new direction with ease.
on 21 September 2012
In the aftermath of WWII, newlyweds Philip and Isabel move to the Yorkshire East Riding where they hope to embark on their new life together. Philip is a Gp and is soon working long hours, leaving Isabel alone in their flat, with only the monotonous noise of the landlady's footsteps above for company. One particularly chilly night Isabel finds an old greatcoat in one of the cupboards and slips it on for warmth; later however, she is disturbed by a tapping at the window where an RAF officer appears to be leaning in and mouthing her name. Who is he, how is it that he seems to know her, or why perhaps even more strangely she seems to know him?
The Greatcoat is a wonderfully atmospheric read, as Dunmore captures quite perfectly the era in which the story is set. War has ended, however, the suffering and tragedy of those years still endures, permeating the very landscape as loss on both a national and personal scale is still acutely felt. Life in the small Yorkshire village for Isabel and Philip is portrayed with great naunce and attention to small detail that completely draws the reader in, and one can almost feel their hardships. The ghostly remains of the old airfield are also quite hauntingly conjured, the ambience created wonderfully eerie yet sad, with the undertone of its former life still ringing just beneath the surface.
With regards to the ghost story, this is by no means a chilling thriller or horror, but rather an unusual supernatural story with echoes of classics such as Tom's Midnight Garden. It soon becomes apparent that the presence of mysterious RAF officer, Alec, is connected somehow to the Greatcoat, however precisely why he appears to Isabel and how they seem to know each other is a mystery which is slowly unravelled. I have to say that not all aspects of the storyline quite made sense to me, sometimes it seemed like more of a time travel story and the ending too was rather dubious, hence the three stars rating. However, given the nature of the storyline I was generally prepared to merely go along with it and not question things too much.
Most of the central characters are well constructed. Isabel's small and mundane life is portrayed well such that one can empathise with her frustrations, and the effect that Alec has on her comes across well. Philip is a sympathetic character, even if not always so in the eyes of his wife, and Alec, though by no means ever a threatening figure, is laced with an air of sadness, burden and haunting. However, perhaps the most eerie presence is that of the landlady, whose relevance becomes more clear as the story progresses, and who lurks throughout the story with an air of vengeance and ill-boding.
All in all this makes for an unusual but very readable novella, not at all the average ghost story, but actually a story very much about human loss. Worth a read.
on 30 September 2012
I love Helen Dunmore's books - I've never read one I haven't enjoyed. But this was a big disappointment. I can't put the reviews on the cover together with the book at all. It's not badly written of course, but it's not remotely scary, nor even atmospheric. It's got all the ingredients of a stunning ghost story: deserted airfields, post-war scarcity, a strange landlady, a lonely young wife and to top it all, fog. But... they don't add up to what they could. So although I did finish it, it didn't work for me.
Newlyweds Philip and Isabel Carey are setting up their first home in cold, stark rooms in a converted house. Philip works long hours establishing himself as a GP in a close-knit Yorkshire farming community, and Isabel finds herself struggling to settle in and make friends, and to adjust to the domesticity and boredom of the life of a 1950s housewife.
Isabel finds an old RAF greatcoat hidden away in a cupboard and puts it on their bed in an effort to banish the cold which envelops her as she sleeps. One night while Philip is away on a house call, she hears a tapping at the window. Outside is a young pilot who appears to be calling her name.
Although it's published by Hammer, this is not a blood-curdling horror story, but more of a gentle study of the effects of wartime loss and grief. I was a bit confused/unconvinced by the surreal way in which the pilot (Alec) kept entering Isabel's life, but after I suspended my disbelief I became totally engrossed in the storyline. As the story progresses it becomes obvious that Isabel suffered terrible losses during the war, from which she hasn't yet recovered.
Helen Dunmore has set The Greatcoat in the year of her birth in an area she grew up in, and based it on a ghostly apparition seen by sister when they were children. I found her author's note at the end of the book really interesting, where she talks about society's need to "rebuild and to begin again" after the war, so that the dead were almost forgotten and not talked about. I thought this came across really strongly in the novel, with all the characters, apart from Isabel and the fabulously creepy 'landlady', moving on in the hope of better lives after the sacrifices of war.
This is not my first Helen Dunmore book - I have to admit I've struggled with her in the past but this poignant novella has inspired me to give her another go, and I think I'll make a start with The Siege.
on 7 August 2012
I am a complete wimp but my flesh did not creep, and the only thing I was haunted by after finishing this book was the sound of my brain going "Was that it? Where's my ending? Why do we now have a four page afterword by the author?" Also: "THIS COULD HAVE BEEN SO GOOD."
The afterword is presumably to pad out a novella which Hammer, for reasons known only to them, have padded out with great papery gaps either side of the writing. This is a novel that is slight in length but also very much in content.
I zoomed through this in a couple of hours thanks to the addictive single-string structure of following Isobel, but while I couldn't put it down, I was fundamentally unable to care for any of the characters either. None of the developed plot threads go anywhere, or build to anything more than a vague hint; and not a satisfyingly teasing hint either, more a hint of someone who has gone off in search of a digestive and forgotten to do anything more with it.
The back of the book is written rather amazingly like a Point Horror ("outside is a young man. A pilot. <new par> And he wants to come in..." - and I SWEAR I read that story in about 1993 - but this is the most nerve-shredding part of the book. The ghost himself seems to be a nice chap, which is all fine, there is an obligatorily unnerving landlady, but her potential for supreme creepiness is thrown away a few pages before the afterword.
The end of the book is so depressing in its lack of chill or satisfaction that the author's well-meaning list of influences in that bloody afterword serves more to remind you of what could have been, than what you've just read. On a positive note there were some great descriptions, and budding characters who sadly were never built on.
on 8 November 2012
This book captures a real atmosphere of the 1950s. The descriptions of the fighter pilots during the war are very realistic. All the scenes and characters though are permeated with an eerie and ghostly air - so subtle and clever. A wonderful book.
The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore is published by Hammer, of Hammer Horror fame, and has been widely discussed in the press as the author's first horror story. But it's really not what I'd call horror. It's eerie, yes, and has a slightly unsettling, dreamlike quality to it, but if anything, what it most closely resembles is those quietly magical time-slip novels of my childhood: Charlotte Sometimes, perhaps, or Tom's Midnight Garden.
Isabel, newly married to a young GP in 1952, is struggling to find real purpose in her life as a housewife in a Yorkshire market town, where she has few friends and few outlets for her interests. Shivering one night in the freezing ground-floor flat she and her husband are renting from their dour, bitter landlady, Isabel finds an old RAF greatcoat, left over from the war, tucked away on top of a wardrobe, and huddles beneath it to keep warm. And it's around then that a mysterious young airman begins to knock at her window.
The Greatcoat is beautifully written throughout in perceptive, perfect prose, and almost every character is vividly well-constructed (with the exception, perhaps, of Isabel's husband Philip, although given the plot, this may well be deliberate). I found it incredibly easy to sympathise with Isabel, brought up by an aunt and now trying to master the art of making a steak and kidney pudding and haggling over the best fish at the market when she could have been studying for a degree, and any adult who's ever had that nagging feeling that they still aren't quite a proper grown-up yet will understand how she feels. There are times when Isabel fears that she's losing her grip on reality, unsure whether Alec is what she believes him to be, or even if she's what she believes herself to be, but in a way, this simply mirrors the unease she feels over her new role in life as a supportive housewife.
If you're looking for real scares, The Greatcoat probably isn't for you, and if I had to look for something to criticise, there were perhaps moments when I felt that Isabel's attraction to Alec was slightly over-romanticised. But this a tiny point that I've had to struggle to think of. Overall, it really is a thoroughly absorbing, exquisitely-crafted, thought-provoking book that will stay with you long after you've finished the final page.
Looking at the somewhat mixed reactions from other customers, I feel this novella has suffered at the hands of some misplaced marketing. It is undoubtedly a ghost story; however, the associations conjured by the Hammer branding on the spine plus critics' wild comparisons to Susan Hill's The Woman In Black do the book no favours. This is not horror fiction, nor is it terrifying - although it does have its chilling moments. It is probably best described as a haunting psychological drama with a supernatural theme.
I am a great fan of Helen Dunmore, and this short work is in many ways typical of her fiction. There's the same controlled, understated prose which flourishes with moments of poetic imagery, the same strong sense of time and place, the same wonderful gift for characterisation. The grey, dour austerity of post-war Britain is brilliantly captured, as is the taut, barely controlled chaos of a wartime airfield preparing for a mission. As usual the characters are all well drawn and convincing, from the newly married, uncertain and unhappy Isabel and her preoccupied husband Philip to the gossipy, disapproving villagers and the mysterious landlady. The atmosphere of unease builds gradually as Isabel becomes involved with ghostly airman Alec until their tense final encounter; the whole story is perfectly paced and satisfying.
I would certainly recommend this to those who have enjoyed Helen Dunmore's other books, and to general readers too - provided they aren't expecting a horrifying or terrifying read. This is far more subdued and subtle, and all the more powerful as a result.