The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

Review published on February 13, 2018.

Helen Dunmore was commissioned by Hammer to write a ghost story, a genre she had always loved. She knew that if she agreed, the story ‘would have to be one where the intensity of the inner, psychological drama matched the outward disturbance of the haunting’. The Greatcoat is the result. It is set post war in an East Ridings town, where a newly married couple Isabel and Philip rent rooms, from an unfriendly and mysterious landlady, in a house near an abandoned World War II airbase. Philip is busy establishing himself as the junior partner in the local medical practice, so Isabel is often alone. Everyone and everything seems touched by the losses and effects of war. There is still rationing and queuing – Isabel and Philip have to eke out the coal and she always feels cold at night. So the discovery of a heavy warm Air Force greatcoat in a cupboard seems a godsend.

Helen Dunmore has always been able to call up voices from the past in her novels and to use domestic settings to counterpoint major events. In this novel as well as the small domestic details, she uses smells and the landscape to create an atmosphere that makes the ‘haunting’ of Isabel only too believable. This is in no way a scary ghost story, it is more a story of grief and loss and of unresolved feelings. In her afterword, Dunmore says ‘some events are so overwhelming that time, rather than carrying them away, brings them back again and again to the same place.’ This is the essence of this story.

I was very pleased to have the chance to reread this novel, as I appreciated it much more this time. There are others of her novels that I like more but this has all the elements that made Helen Dunmore such a good writer and for which she will be sorely missed.

Maddy Broome 4/4

The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore
Hammer 9780099564942 pbk Aug 2012


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