Helen Dunmore is an author whose books I’ve seen around for a long time but never got around to reading until recently when I found a bargain copy of The Greatcoat in a library sale. I wasn’t blown away by it though I have the feeling that this is far from her best work and I would have done better to pick up The Siege or The Betrayal instead.
The Greatcoat features a newly married doctor’s wife trying to get used to her new life in an unfamiliar Yorkshire town and a dark, cold flat where the smell of Brussels sprouts is ever present. It’s 1952 and although the war finished seven years earlier, food and other essentials are still being rationed. Isabelle is lonely, cold and unable to sleep because of her landlady’s relentless pacing in he room above her bedroom. Finding a dusty RAF greatcoat, crammed into the back of a tall cupboard, she spreads it over her bed for warmth.
In the middle of her dreams, she hears a knocking on the window to find a young, handsome Air Force staring in at her from outside the window. Alec becomes an invaluable part of her life. Through him she is transported back to her childhood when she listened to the engines of Lancaster bombers overhead. Their motorbike rides through the Yorkshire countryside give her the sense of freedom she lost with her marriage. But all the time there is a cloud of fear over their relationship as Alec’s next bombing raid draws near.
We’re not far into the story before it’s apparent that Alec is a ghost, one of the many RAF pilots that never made it back to the nearby airfield. He’s not your usual kind of spectre however— he’s not intent on killing her or seeking revenge but he can’t seem to leave Isabelle alone. Actually it’s not even Isabelle he wants, she just reminds him of the girl he loved when he was alive.
Dunmore does a wonderful job of creating the atmosphere of this novel, manifested in the bleak abandoned airfield and the figure that appears nightly at the window. But overall the implausibility of the story overwhelmed me. Isabelle, for all that she is clearly an intelligent woman, seems oblivious to the fact Alec is not real. She never wonders how he seems to know so much about her, and never questions why he talks about bombing raids over Germany as if the war was still raging but instead completely buys into his accounts of his last raid. The more this nonsense continued, the more I wanted to shout at her “He’s a ghost you stupid woman.”
When Random House published The Greatcoat, they described it as Helen Dunmore’s first ghost story but it’s a pretty gentle one. There’s no evil or malevolence in evidence. Just despair. I would describe it more as a story about the enduring power of love but even then it didn’t thrill me.