The Greatcoat, By Helen Dunmore
Dunmore's historical novels have been compared to Tolstoy. This wartime ghost story is not in that league, but it does what it says on the dust jacket
Helen Dunmore recently said that people are "always very surprised" when she tells them that she has written a novella for Hammer Books. The publishing imprint is on a mission to drag the ghost story upmarket by commissioning literary novelists such as Dunmore, Jeanette Winterson and Melvin Burgess to write stories for them. Dunmore's will be the first of these when it is published on 2 February, and it has a lot to live up to.
Dunmore is a novelist, poet and children's author whose books have been shortlisted for almost every big-hitting prize going; The Siege (2001) and The Betrayal (2010), about life in Leningrad in the 1940s and 1950s, were compared by reviewers to the work of Tolstoy. This slight novella does not quite have the scope or the impact of those two unforgettable novels, but as a classic ghost story, it does what it says on the dust jacket.
After a brief Prologue, in which the crew of a Lancaster bomber (in Second World War fiction, it is almost always a Lancaster Bomber) prepare for their 27th op, the novel opens for real in 1952 East Yorkshire. Isabel Carey is a newly married doctor's wife, trying to make her honeymoon period stretch to cover empty days, an unfamiliar town, and a cold, dark flat that permanently smells of Brussels sprouts.
Her husband Philip seems to be always on call, the furniture is ugly, she knows nobody and there is clearly something very sinister about the landlady. Not that she can convince busy Philip of that. Only Isabel lies awake, shivering in the lumpy marital bed, as her gentle husband sleeps beside her and the nameless landlady paces relentlessly overhead. Until, that is, she finds a dusty RAF greatcoat, crammed into the back of a tall cupboard, and puts it on ...
In the middle of the night there is a knock at the window, and a haunted man with "eyes [that] were dark blue, almost navy", becomes a part of her life. She has never met Alec, but somehow she knows him completely. Isabel is reminded of lying in her childhood bed, listening to the engines of the Lancaster bombers surging heavily overhead, counting them out and counting them back in again. To fill the long days when she is not making bad steak and kidney puddings for her sweet, absent husband, she takes long walks to the disused airfield just out of town. Or sometimes she rides pillion on Alec's motorbike and he drives her to the airfield, where there is a battered mattress in a frosty tin hut, and aircrew nearby still ready the hulking bombers for their never-ending 27th op.
As an insight into the lives of a Second World War aircraft crew, this novel is easily bettered by AL Kennedy's 2007 Costa Prize-winning Day. And as a story about the tedious domestic waste of life for women after the war, Ellen Feldman's Next to Love, published last autumn, is more compelling.
But where this novel stands out is in its wonderful sketches of the utter creepiness of life in the Careys' dark little flat. "The door to the bedroom was ajar", notes Isabel. "What a ridiculous arrangement it was, to have the kitchen off the bedroom. It was the way the house had been divided; she supposed that once it had all made sense, when it was whole. It annoyed her, the way things got broken up so that they couldn't fit together properly any more."
Philip, just like a man, can't see anything wrong with the horrid flat, or the always-hovering landlady, or Isabel's pregnancy, or the greatcoat that all of a sudden she would like to see burned. So subtly is this nameless horror traced that the reader could no more explain it than Isabel can, but we feel that it's there.
As Alec's crew prepares again for its endlessly repeated 27th op, and Philip finally pays some attention to his pregnant wife, Isabel grows in confidence and starts to ask around the village about the airfield, the bombing crews, and what exactly the landlady had to do with it all. The story gathers pace, as all good ghost stories should, until a secret is revealed and Isabel has to make a choice.
Fans of Dunmore's Russian novels may struggle with this new direction. The Siege and The Betrayal were brilliant because they fleshed out the real, human details of huge, historical events. This novel adds an extra layer of unreality to fiction, and calls for a reader who is really willing to suspend disbelief. In that sense, it is a perfect ghost story, that will reward Hammer horror readers as well as open-minded Dunmore fans. This ghostly, literary war story could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
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