Book Reviews

The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

The Great CoatHelen 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.



What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

6 thoughts on “The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

  • I wasn’t very impressed by this one. It had some good sections, but you are right about this not being her best. The Siege is one of my all-time favourites. It is shocking in places, but so vivid and powerful. The Betrayal probably has a better quality of writing and is a bit lighter in tone so some people prefer that, but I’d recommend heading straight for The Siege 🙂

    • thanks for that insight, it might take me some time to get around to reading her again but at least I’ll be making a better choice

  • On the cover of the book, and in the text of your review, the coat is correctly named as ‘The Greatcoat’ (one word). Why, then, do you twice give the book’s title as ‘The Great Coat’ (two words)? This significantly changes the meaning and, appearing right next to the cover image, is plainly wrong.

    • Why did I use the wrong name of the book? Quite simply, I’m a fallible human being prone to making mistakes. But also I hope willing to admit my mistakes and correct them. Which I’ve now done. Thanks for alerting me

  • You’re probably right it’s not Dunmore’s best though I haven’t read that many. I love her atmosphere and characters.

    • The atmosphere was by far the strong point of this novella Ali. The characters were rather weak though


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