The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore
5 November, 2012
Outside is a young pilot.
And he wants to come in…
I’ve been looking for a spooky tale to read for a while now that would scare the pants off me and was delighted to receive a copy of Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat for All Hallow’s Read. I have seen lots of enthusiastic reviews of Dunmore’s novels in the past few years and was therefore quite eager to try what many have described as a truly eerie tale.
Isabel Carey, newly married to Philip, is struggling to adapt to her new life in East Riding in the shadow of York Minster. Seven years after the end of WWII, Philip is working hard as a country GP in order to save enough money to buy a family home. In the meantime, he has somehow managed to find a serviceable flat in a house owned by the steely, grey Mrs. Atkinson. However, Isabel takes an instant dislike to her landlady who seems to invoke paranoia by continuously pacing up and down in the flat above and, according to Isabel, spying on them. The flat is dank and cold and one night, desperate for some extra warmth, Isabel finds an old greatcoat hidden deep in one of the cupboards. She feels an instant affinity to it and it is only a matter of time before she hears a tapping at the window…
I initially thought The Greatcoat would be a short story until I realised my error. I wondered whether Dunmore could sustain the suspense but as soon as I started reading, I knew I was in seasoned hands. The Greatcoat reads like a post-war novel but one for modern readers, smooth and unhurried (in the brilliant afterword Dunmore discusses how she tried to avoid clichés). She builds the tension incrementally, from Isabel’s antagonism towards her landlady, to the enquiring looks when she does her daily shopping in an unfamiliar high street, the endless cold in her flat and to Philip’s frequent absence due to his job. And when she meets Alec, her instant familiarity rings alarm bells as you slowly realise how unhappy Isabel is and how easily swayed by phantom memories belonging to another.
I read The Greatcoat with great trepidation and felt uneasy the whole time. I simultaneously wanted to know what was going to happen to Isabel and yet dreaded finding out. That’s part of the fun in reading ghost stories, I know. And the idea of The Greatcoat is a brilliant one, instantly familiar but dripping with atmosphere. You just know what’s going to happen and can’t wait to find out.
My one gripe with this novel is the ending. I guess a lot of ghost stories do end in an ambiguous way, that’s part of their charm (Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger is a good example) but sometimes, I want the story to end with a bang that would scare the living daylights out of me and leave me swearing I won’t read another one for a long time. I guess I found the ending here a little soft in contrast to the coldly menacing beginning. However, I do feel that it is inkeeping with Isabel’s character as she is a lonely outsider lacking the confidence to find her place in life. Philip loves her but wants her to stay at home and be looked after, believing all her problems will be sorted once she has children. Hmm. Obviously we know that isn’t the problem.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy reading this tale. The suspense was wonderful and I highly recommend it.