Book Review: The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

A novel with a World War II setting grabs my attention instantly, especially if it involves the R.A.F.  I also like well-crafted ghost stories. This novel fit the bill perfectly.

The Greatcoat is set in the early 1950s. Britain is slowly recovering from the war, rationing is still in force and the landscape bears crumbling reminders of the recent upheaval.

The novel opens with a prologue: a Lancaster bomber crew are embarking on their 27th mission to Germany, edging closer to the 30 required to complete a tour of duty. The strain is beginning to show and superstitions abound. A crewman sings a song, one that he sings before every mission and the pilot has lucky silk gloves with which he touches the cockpit before each flight.
Jump forward a few years to the 1950s. Isabel and Philip Carey, newlyweds, move to a Yorkshire town when Philip accepts the position as the town’s new doctor. They rent a downstairs flat from the creepy Mrs. Atkinson, to whom Isabel takes an instant dislike, and try to adapt to life as a married couple.

Isabel struggles with her new role as home maker, rationing and what is expected of a doctor’s wife. Lonely, and discouraged from seeking employment by Philip, she takes to wandering the countryside and discovers an abandoned airfield. 

One night, suffering from the cold, Isabel takes an R.A.F. greatcoat found at the back of a cupboard and uses it as a blanket. A few nights later when Philip is out on call, Isabel wakes to the sound of knocking. Assuming it is Philip, she is surprised and a little afraid to see an R.A.F. officer at the window.  But he knows her name and she knows his. She soon realises that it is the greatcoat that connects her to Alec's past life. As Philip becomes more involved with his work, Isabel finds her attachment to the greatcoat and Alec growing stronger, to the point where she finds it difficult to separate the past from the present and fears for her sanity.

The visitations become more intense as Alec snatches moments between missions and aborted missions to be with Isabel. When Isabel witnesses a meeting between Alec and Mrs. Atkinson, she is sufficiently disturbed to question what is happening and soon uncovers the tragic truth.

The Greatcoat is a very quick read. I read it in an afternoon. I like Helen Dunmore’s writing style. It is simple and direct. She drew me into the story completely, allowing my own imagination to work its magic. Isabel's two worlds blended so smoothly that at times I forgot that Alec was a ghost and the constant pacing of the landlady in the flat above the one Isabel and Philip rent added a sense of foreboding and anticipation. There are excellent descriptions of the Lancaster bombers leaving and returning from missions and Dunmore paints a very sad and melancholy picture of the abandoned airfield and of a population dealing with the aftermath of war, the memories of which are still painful.

For those expecting a chilling and scary ghost story, this novel will probably disappoint, but if, like me, you prefer your ghost stories more subtle, with endings open to interpretation, then you will enjoy this novel as much as I did.

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