Books Magazine

The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

By Bluestalking @Bluestalking

Well, now, it seems reading and sharing my thoughts about Dunmore's Penguin Short "Protection" has opened up a whole new interest in her writing for me. Not that I didn't know of her before. I did, I just hadn't made time for her. You know how that goes. There are a million writers you hear about, whose work sounds exactly like something you'd love to pursue, to sit down with all their books and read them all straight through. But since when does life allow for that? If there were to be a heaven, this would be mine: all the time in the Universe to read all the books by all the authors I've ever felt inclined to read.


Helen Dunmore's latest The Greatcoat had me at "ghost story," a term which figures heavily in everything I've read about the book, including the blurb by The Independent that happens to be smack dab on the front of the dust jacket, "A perfect ghost story." None too subtle, that.

What with it being October, Hallowe'en nigh, I'm even more inclined to indulge my not-so-secret passion for all things creepy and supernatural. And, though it's not a 100% rule, when it comes to reading ghost stories, my preference tends to lean toward female British writers. I've never stopped to analyze the whys and wherefores, it's just how it happens to be. And Helen Dunmore just happens to be both female and British. Which works out rather well for both of us, don't you think?

The plot of The Greatcoat centers on a young, recently married woman - Isabel Carey - living in 1952 East Riding, Yorkshire with her physician husband Philip. As a young doctor working in a semi-rural area, Philip spends a lot of time away from home, running about to see patients often miles and miles away from the town. This leaves Isabel often home alone, knowing no one and not being of a particularly social nature or inclination to change her solitary state.

That being the case, Isabel divides her time between trying to become the perfect wife (with the help of a book titled Early Days, which I could not locate, so am assuming it's a made up title meant to evoke all those books of housewifery so popular at the time) and walking around the countryside.

Without any children, and considering Philip's long hours, that leaves Isabel with a lot of time on her hands. She walks for miles, often spending the bulk of her days out and about. Stumbling on an abandoned WW II airfield, Isabel becomes fixated on her childhood memories of the war, recollections of the sound the planes made flying overhead, until it reaches the point all things war-related - including some things she didn't experience but believes she's only imagining - become part of her dreams.

Soon after her first visit to the abandoned base, while desperately searching the freezing cold rental apartment she and Philip live in for something to serve as a warm blanket, Isabel comes upon a military "greatcoat," a thick, woolen RAF coat that, though stiff with dust, is also incredibly warm. After beating the worst of the dust and stuffy smell from the coat she begins to wear it at night, burrowing into it.

It isn't long after that the strangeness begins. In the middle of one particularly freezing cold night, when Philip is away, Isabel awakes to the sound of tapping. Alarmed, she sits bolt upright in bed. After a few minutes she laughs at herself, exhaling her fear. It must be Philip, who, having forgotten his key didn't want to wake the landlady, so he was tapping on the front window of their first-floor apartment. But, when she gets to the window, pulling back the curtain, it isn't Philip standing there. It's a handsome man wearing a military uniform. Frightened, she jumps back, closing the curtain. Curious again, she peeks through. The man is speaking her name, forming the syllables slowly and distinctly so she can understand what he's saying. Heart pounding, she closes the curtain and retreats to bed.

Lying awake, terrified, it begins to dawn on her the man must be a lost serviceman. As they were located next to the minster - the cathedral - he'd likely figured their's was the most likely house he could get help. If he knew this was the doctor's residence, it made it all the more likely to be the case. They lived near an active base, after all. It wouldn't be out of the question such a thing could happen. She felt ashamed of herself, especially as the doctor's wife.

Within East Riding, Isabel is aware of being somewhat outcast, as a young wife not native to the town. In the market she's offered the bruised fruit, at the butcher the meat that's mostly fat. As she's made no effort to get to know the people, they've grown to assume she felt above them, being the wife of the new doctor. Also, she was bookish, feeling somewhat sorry for herself she had foregone a university education, exchanging it for life as a doctor's wife.

Shades of Madame Bovary, methinks, only Philip was handsome and young, definitely an appealing man. Isabel loved him, and he loved her. There seemed no reason she would stray, other than perhaps the frequent absence of her husband. But then, he did expect she'd grow to love being a housewife, and eventually mother, and brushed off her suggestion she should do something such as tutor students in French, or take any job at all. He expected her to stay home, yet become close and friendly with other housewives and mothers. This Isabel resented.

So, when handsome Alec, the same young serviceman who'd tapped at her window before returns again, she lets him in. It isn't long before an affair begins, instant affinity between the two making the atmosphere electric. The two see each other often, once he takes her to the airfield, giving her a ride on the back of his motorcycle. When she's with him she's carefree, though his attention is never quite riveted on her. But there's just something about him, some quality of heroism and bravery.

Dunmore's writing is lovely. Deliciously so. I'd be hard-pressed to pull out any one sentence at random and find it doesn't ring true. That's one of my tests of what makes good writing. No single phrase should clunk, nothing should be gratuitous. Lean, understated prose. That's perfection.

As far as the promise of the book, the insistence it's spooky or a "flesh-creeper," it's there I have a problem. The plot's certainly creative, the situation most definitely not of this world, but at no time did I feel that tingling at the back of my neck, the one that makes me turn around to make sure I'm really alone and that what's going on in the book - irrational thought it may be  - isn't happening to me.

I found it more a supernatural love story, one without a reason to feel particularly scared. More sad than scared, really. Don't get me wrong, had I been Isabel I'd have felt differently, experiencing what she did, but as a reader I felt removed from it all. The images were great, the premise interesting but scary? I'd have to say not.

I did enjoy the book; I just feel a little let down it wasn't what the PR insisted. Though I know, that's nothing unusual. Still, it falls on the author - especially one with as much experience + popularity = power as Helen Dunmore - to be responsible for the reader's expectations being met. If the blurbs said the story was creepy, it should have been creepy.

That the book's well-written but doesn't meet its biggest promise falls on Dunmore's shoulders. It makes the reader distrust an author when something like this happens. And, again, she's a fine writer.  Very fine. But it's necessary to hit the mark. As the writer, as with any other profession, you have to deliver what you say you're going to or you haven't done your job. In the absence of that, it's like she's been hired as my interior painter and overall the job looks wonderful, only, later I notice she missed a spot. Do I let it go or vow never to hire her again?

In this case I'd hire her again, just without reading so many Yelp reviews first. And, were I to grade her on this performance, I'd give her an A-/B+, anyway, so I don't feel I wasted my time reading her book. It just missed hitting that sweet spot in the center of the target. Still, a very good read.

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