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The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore (thoughts)

July 23, 2013

The Greatcoat
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!

21 Comments leave one →
  1. July 23, 2013 7:06 pm

    I love quietly atmospheric stories, but I feel like I read and did not love something by Helen Dunmore. I’m proving totally incapable of fishing out the title of it from my memory though, so maybe it was Helen Something Else. Are her books always spookyish?

    • July 23, 2013 8:12 pm

      Hmmm: the only other one I’ve read is Spell of Winter which was definitely gothic. There are so many Helens though maybe you are thinking of another one? I thought she was Canadian for like two years lol.

  2. July 23, 2013 7:22 pm

    I’ve always wanted to try Dunmore’s books for just this reason! I’ve read some amazing reviews of her books and your review makes me want to read her even more :) I think I should save this for the upcoming RIP challenge (and yes I know it is only July…lol!)

  3. July 23, 2013 8:38 pm

    That’s quite the raving review!

  4. July 23, 2013 9:11 pm

    I just read and enjoyed Susanna Kearsley’s The Shadowy Horses, and am thus feeling very positive toward ghost stories at the moment. (And I got the recommendation of the Kearsley book from you.) So on to my to-read list with The Greatcoat! As someone said above, maybe a good book for the RIP Challenge.

  5. July 23, 2013 11:55 pm

    Welcome back, Eva! Beautiful review! This looks like a wonderful book. I loved this sentence from your review – “Often times the best ghost stories tap into not only personal fears but cultural ones.” The cover of the book is also quite interesting. I will keep an eye for this book. Thanks for this review.

  6. July 24, 2013 3:34 am

    I really love the sound of this one, I remember hearing about it when it was first published and making a mental note – but then forgot all about it in the piles of books I already have TBR. I have read three or four Helen Dunmore novels and really enjoyed her writing and the wonderful sense of place she creates.

  7. July 24, 2013 8:32 am

    Historical fiction and gothic fiction are my favourite genres. this definitely sounds interesting!

  8. July 24, 2013 6:55 pm

    Do you know I have The Greatcoat on my couch at this moment! My problem is I need to finish up a couple of other books before I can turn to it. However, I’ve browsed through it thoroughly and I know I’m going to love it.

    Happy reading and blogging to you, Eva!

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

  9. July 24, 2013 10:16 pm

    Oooh, that sounds so good I put a hold on it at my library straight away! Thanks Eva!

  10. Sharkell permalink
    July 25, 2013 4:38 am

    I read this book a couple of months ago and your review bought it all back to me. I loved it as much as you did. It was my first Dunmore but I would like to read more. I have The Siege in my tbr pile. My daughter has read one of her young adult/teenage series and she loved her too.

  11. July 25, 2013 2:18 pm

    Like the sound of this. I kept seeing it in the shops but never bought it. Now I will.

  12. July 25, 2013 8:34 pm

    She’s a wonderful writer, isn’t she? My favorite of her novels (and I’m not sure that “favorite” is exactly the right word, when one considers the subject matter) is “The Siege” probably the best thing I’ve ever read about the Siege of Leningrad. Dark and sad, but quite compelling.

  13. July 27, 2013 12:48 pm

    I just got it!! I’m going to be reading it soon. I love your review – I had to skim it so I wouldn’t learn too much about the book, I just love that you love the ghostliness so much, Eva. Yaay!

  14. July 27, 2013 6:40 pm

    This sounds like a perfect read. I’m definitely putting it on my wish list. Great review!

  15. July 27, 2013 10:16 pm

    I love ghost stories! It’s been a while since I read a good one so I’ll have to keep this one on my list.

  16. July 28, 2013 12:21 pm

    I’ve enjoyed Helen Dunmore’s work so far — I have this one in my ‘to-read’ stacks — plus a few others. Glad to see that it has the Eva Seal of Approval ;) Makes me want to read it sooner!

  17. July 31, 2013 12:24 pm

    I am glad you liked this. I have been eyeing it for ages and now will have to pick it up!!

  18. Jennifer Dee permalink
    August 11, 2013 3:40 am

    On your recommendation I ordered this book from my library and it was really very good. It is now doing the rounds of some friends and they have all enjoyed it very much.


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