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An atmospheric ghost story
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.