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3.5 out of 5 stars
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3.5 out of 5 stars
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 April 2012
Set in the 1950s in the years following the end of WW2 this novella is a poignant ghost story.

Newlyweds Isabel and her husband Philip a gp move into their first home together a rather grim little flat with an unfriendly landlady and Isabel struggles to adapt to married life, finding the constraints of the small apartment don't permit her to become the housewife she dreamt about, and her husbands long hours constantly on call out leave her felling isolated and unfulfilled.

Searching through the cupboards for extra blankets to dispel the shivers and chills she feels in bed she finds instead an ex-forces greatcoat, which she finds herself unable to resist cuddling into and nestling beneath in bed despite the strange and vivid dreams which follow.

Her waking hours seem to take on a dreamlike quality and she is startled yet unsurprised when a tap on her window late at nights reveals a young pilot calling her name. His she discovers is Alec and she is drawn to him, in ways she has been unable to bond with her new husband.

But all is not as it seems and her life begins to take on an increasingly surreal quality as past blends with present.

I've only read 2 books by Helen Dunmore before and wasn't impressed with either - as they had an unrelentingly bleak and grim quality to them. This short book has a similar bleakness yet that seems to enhance the ghostly nature of the story, I found it profoundly moving and sad and kept reading it late last night to find out what happened. It left me with a lump in my throat and tears on my pillow.

Not a terrifying horror ghost story but a compellingly eerie tale of loss and betrayal and a desire for redemption which transcends time.

I also feel there is something deliciously concise about a novella that keeps superfluous descriptions at bay and ensures the stark prose keeps to the point and every sentence counts.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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This intriguing story is set in Yorkshire, it is 1952 and Philip and Isabel Carey, a newly married couple move into a cold and cheerless rented flat - a temporary measure until they can afford a deposit for their first home. Philip, a newly qualified GP is naturally very busy, which means that Isabel, a housewife, is often alone and, apart from the dour landlady upstairs (an unpleasant and rather sinister woman) she has little personal contact with the outside world which means she begins to feel rather isolated and lonely.

One night, woken by the intense cold, Isabel goes in search of extra blankets and discovers an old RAF greatcoat which, being beautifully thick and heavy, she finds useful for keeping her warm. A short time later when Isabel is alone in bed, she hears a tapping at the window and is surprised to see a young airman staring through the icy windowpane who then disappears from sight. However, this is not the last Isabel sees of the airman for he returns later and, although she has never actually met him, she feels she knows him completely, and this is the start of an intense and very unusual relationship between a young married woman and a man who is not quite a part of her normal world...

Helen Dunmore is a wonderful writer and she is certainly one of my favourite authors; however, this book being Dunmore's first ghost story, it is quite different from anything of hers that I have read before. Even though this is a new direction for Dunmore, being such a good writer, she doesn't really put a foot wrong - except I did think it a little strange that she did not make Isabel question her unusual situation more than she did - or perhaps wonder to herself whether she was hallucinating or even losing her mind. That said, `The Greatcoat' is a well written, atmospheric and suspenseful story by an accomplished author and it certainly seems to have all the right ingredients for the ghost story genre.

Also recommended by the same author: The Siege;The Betrayal;A Spell of Winter;Zennor in Darkness - to name just a few.
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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.
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on 14 September 2012
Very much a Novella made to look like a novel by clever typesetting (large print and acres of spare page abound).Lack of length is not unusual in the ghost story genre - most are short stories or novellas, although most are not puffed out to be made to resemble a novel. So, a short read.

This is my first Dunmore story, and I like her style of writing. It's undemanding, with the narrative nipping along at a fair pace and the characters swiftly drawn. Isabel is rather a lost woman, cast adrift as her doctor husband allows his new job to fill every hour - we see him through her eyes and it's not always a sympathetic picture. I enjoyed the build up to the finding of the greatcoat. We're primed, as we would be in a film, to see the discovery and nod our heads, and wait for thiungs to start happening. My problem is that when things do start happening I'm not particularly chilled by them. The airman does not seem particularly threatening, and to a degree the absent threat never develops. Even towards the end, when things have been explained further and he puts in a re-appearance and we know more about the landlady - I don't feel frightened for any of the characters. So as a spine-tingling ghost story it fails for me, even if the scene when the airfield shifts between the past and present - especially the passage in which we are told it felt like the volume had been turned up - was immensley atmospheric.

What I do love, however, is the effortless portrayal of the time. I'm completely immersed in this landscape, this East Yorkshire town with a minster and a decaying airfield. Her subtle use of detail is beautifully executed, and unlike some other readers, I did enjoy the afterword. It felt much more personal and immediate than many of the authors pages at the end of novels. Although there was some literary name-dropping, and The Greatcoat doesn't even come close to the depths of the likes of Wuthering Heights, it did give us an insight into the writing. Isabel's frustrations; the smallness, the meaness of life in the post war years, the expectation that she should be a normal wife, is perfectly captured. Why would she not want an escape from her absent husband and the judgment of her peers?

The landlady is probably the creepiest element of this story - and her story unfolding is very tragic. I many ways she is the ghost in this book.

I may just have to go and seek out some more of Dunmore's work if this is a taster of what she can do.
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on 30 December 2012
I really enjoyed reading this book and felt that the word used by The Times on the quote featured on the front cover of this edition; "elegant" was exactly the right word to employ in describing it. This is an elegant story, deftly constructed with - as you would expect from an author of Dunmore's calibre - good use of language, excellently realised characters and a strong plot which leads you forward and into the story. It is NOT - as The Times also claim - a "flesh-creeper" and nor is it really comparable to "The Woman in Black" as they also state. I did not find this story "creepy" at all (and I'm a complete wuss when it comes to ghost stories), although there is plenty of atmosphere evoked from the flat East Riding landscape and the desolate abandoned airfields. It also lacks the malevolence of The Woman in Black. There is no evil inherent in this story at all. Indeed, if anything, it is more a tale which affirms the durability of the human spirit and love. Yes, it is tragic - so many lives cut short and then so easily forgotten in the human race's rush to replace those which were lost; but it is still, essentially, a love story.

Some reviewers have commented that they found that Dunmore was forcing the action forward. I noted this too in the scene where Isabel first finds The Greatcoat. Here, the scene seemed a little too laboured and overwrought for my taste. I didn't really pick up on it elsewhere though. Indeed, there is a paragraph where Alec considers the experiences he has gained in the air: "either you came back or you didn't, and if you did you came back with new, sharp, hot fragments of knowledge. It all had to fit together. It had to be remembered instant by instant. He had to hold it all in his mind, so that it wasn't even like thinking any more, it was all there without him having to think about it." (pp 151-2) and it struck me that it was a similar experience whilst reading the book - fragments of knowledge were being drip fed to you, but with such a light hand that somehow you just knew what was coming and what had been without realising how you had initially aquired this knowledge from the preceding pages. I also didn't find the story in any way unbelieveable - which is perhaps surprising considering the material; but, as I have said, the characters (even the ghost) are strongly realised and so vivid to the reader that, as Yann Martel once wrote of the perfect characters, they practically have a pulse and need a birth certificate (again, even the ghost!)

In short, this is a great ghost/love story. Like all Dunmore's novels, reading it is an emotional experience and one well worth investing in.
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on 2 July 2013
THE GREATCOAT, by Helen Dunmore
(SPOILERS)
Apart from being a compelling and intriguing read, possibly, the best thing in this book, is the fact that the story holds interest, once the ghost has appeared. In fact the story gains interest. It puts Isabel in a dilema. Should she encourage this ghostly figure of a WW2 bomber pilot into the flat. What part does the greatcoat play? What is the secret of the mysterious landlady who lives upstairs? How should Isabel keep her liasons with the ghostly pilot a secret from her husband?
Although the book is not that long, a huge amount of energy seems to have been injected into every page, by the author. She has a great sense of atmosphere. The damp cold frosty village, during the early 1950's, situated near a now deserted ww2 airfield.
The book also reveals some of the trauma inflicted on those bomber pilots. With only four more missions to fly. Their only thought is, will their luck hold out. And, as described near the end of the story, `but the frightening thing was how easily the world got on without the dead`
Helen Dunmore also sets a puzzle. Who is the ghost? Apparantly, Alec, the bomber pilot, or as Isabel begins to wonder, is she the ghost? And somehow has slipped through a crack in time. And again, what of the mysterious and forebidding landlady?
So The Greatcoat combines all the traditional ingredients of a ghost story. But also expands on this. It reveals the sudden hidden depths of emotion, shared by two people, that always sense, that their lives together have touched for a moment, but will never be complete.
And as for the ending? Ends (in my opinion,) just as a good ghost story should.
(this was a chance read for me. I had no real intention of reading a book labeled as a ghost story. But I am so pleased I did.)
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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.
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