Saturday, 8 October 2016

Review: The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

The Greatcoat is half ghost story, half poignant love story, but if you are expecting to be half scared to death you are going to be disappointed. There are no jump shocks here.

It is 1952 and middle-class women were supposed to give up work when they married. Isabel spends her entire day cooking meals for her GP husband and trying not be be fobbed off with fatty cuts of meat from the butcher - a completely alien lifestyle to me living in the 21st century - I actually snorted out loud when her husband suggested they got a cleaner in to help her out!

The two-roomed flat they are renting (from a very Mrs Danvers-ish landlady) is freezing. In an effort to keep warm, Isabel uses the old RAF greatcoat she has found in a cupboard as a blanket. It doesn't take long for the original owner (Alec) to make an appearance, tapping on the window like a vampire from a horror movie, and it's not just his greatcoat he's after!

There is a lot of historical detail about life in the early 1950s, and that of an RAF pilot during the war, but the most chilling scenes are when time seems to slip. Occasionally Alec realises life has moved on without him before his mind resets, and Isabel glimpses Alec's long-lost world superimposed on her own. It reminded me of Tom's Midnight Garden and The Time Traveller's Wife.

There are a few twists I didn't see coming, mainly because I wasn't expecting them. I'd been lulled into believing this was a nice little paranormal romance, but the final scenes are genuinely chilling, along with the revelations about Alec's death and the reason for his return. 

This is a lovely ghost story, which I thoroughly recommend, although it is more poignant than frightening.

About the Author

Helen Dunmore was born in Yorkshire in 1952. She won the first Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Baileys Prize) for her novel A Spell of Winter. She wrote about the Siege of Leningrad in her 2001 novel The Siege, which was described by the historian Antony Beevor as 'a world-class novel'. It been translated into more than twenty languages. Her 2014 novel The Lie focuses on the trauma of the First World War and its aftermath through a group of three characters who come of age during that war. The Lie was a Sunday Times bestseller. She is also a poet, short story and children's writer. Her 'Ingo' series of novels for children has been published around the world.

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