The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore (thoughts)
For once, you can judge a book but its cover. The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore has the same compelling-yet-disturbing, dark atmosphere as its cover art, and it is a wonderful ghost story.
These are surprisingly hard to find, which makes me treasure The Greatcoat all the more. I adore ghost stories and gothic fiction, but in both cases I both end up searching for ages to turn up a handful of promising titles and also end up disappointed more often than not by the books themselves. I’m not sure why there aren’t more offerings, since it seems like both would be fairly popular with readers, but there you have it. But back to The Greatcoat.
It is set in post WWII Britain, which was a more for austere place than its American counterpart, and just to increase the austerity Dunmore brings her heroine to rural Yorkshire in winter. A young woman, newly married but brought up as an orphan, left at a home on the edge of a village while her doctor husband works long hour, Isabel is ripe for a ghostly experience. But she never feels like a one-dimensional authorial tool; Dunmore imbues her with a such strong sense of life and humanity that she becomes a completely convincing, if at times frustrating, character. Her experiences with Alec, a RAF pilot who turns up outside her window one night, are of the subtle kind, imbued more with a sense of mystery and wonder than fear. There is, though, a tiny bit of dread the Dunmore expertly weaves throughout the story, and the whole book has an almost claustrophobic feel to it that enhances the atmosphere wonderfully. The plot moves slowly, carefully, and features an ending that’s wonderfully powerful and even a bit unexpected.
Often times the best ghost stories tap into not only personal fears but cultural ones. Dunmore does so magnificently: while this is very much the story of Isabel, a person faced with confusing, heartwrenching circumstances, it is also an exploration of post-war Britain, a nation that has to come to terms with what it lost during the war years. That mix, along of course with Dunmore’s prose expertise, is what makes The Greatcoat such an excellent piece of literature.
In other words, I adored it. If it had a fault, it would be its slimness (about two hundred pages), not because it’s not well constructed, but because I selfishly wanted the reading experience to last longer. This is my second Dunmore novel, and the second time I’ve been won over both heart and mind. Clearly, I will be reading more of her back list! If you love character-focused fiction and prefer your ghost stories to be quietly atmospheric instead of of full of Exorist-esque pyrotechnics, you should definitely pick up The Greatcoat. Just writing this post makes me want to pick it up again!