Review: The Greatcoat – Helen Dunmore

The GreatcoatNow here’s an interesting concept.  Hammer Films (the producer of so many 1950-70s horror movies) have joined up with publishers Random House to form Hammer Books, a new imprint which will specialise in all things ghostly and shocking.  I have had an affection for the horror genre since being an avid teen reader of the many volumes of The Pan Book of Horror Stories and I sometimes return to the genre whenever a new volume of the Mammoth Book of Best New Horror Stories is produced (an excellent collection by the way, currently up to volume 22).

Hammer have got off to a really good start by publishing this short novel by Orange Prize winning author Helen Dunmore who was so successful with her novels based around the Siege of Leningrad, The Siege and The Betrayal.

It is 1953 and newly-married Isabel Carey moves to a small Yorkshire town with her husband Philip, a family doctor who has taken up a partnership with another doctor near retirement.  The young couple seem to have a life of quiet prosperity mapped out before them, but for now, they have to lodge in a worn-out ground-floor flat with a hostile land-lady marching about the rooms above them and interfering in their lives whenever she can.

Philip is out for long days of medical practice.   He is very enthusiastic about his new job and Isabel is left to her own devices with no friends or contact in the town and only cleaning and cooking to keep her occupied.  She had lived in France and wants to give French tuition at local schools but Philip seems affronted by the idea that a doctor’s wife should go out to work.  Helen Dunmore captures the stifling nature of a 1950s marriage where the only goal for a woman seems to be to marry and immediately start having babies  in order to relieve her boredom with the stereotyped role she is expected to fulfil.

The little town is a dull and dreary place.  The other women seem to be expert at getting the best produce from the market stalls and shops while Isabel finds that the shopkeepers try to sell her bruised apples and fatty meat.  She feels helpless and insignificant while Philip rapidly becomes a respected doctor among the community of dour farmers and their families.  Helen Dunmore perfectly captures the sense of austerity Britain with its deprivations, its grime and poverty – and its stultifying social structures.   Isabel’s only escape is to take long country walks, often passing an old airfield with ruined huts and broken runways.

It is a bitter winter and the flat is freezing cold – coal is still rationed and the land-lady keeps a her own supply under lock and key.  Isabel eventually finds an old RAF greatcoat in the back of a cupboard and commandeers it to provide her with extra warmth at night. She is surprised to find that when she puts this musty old coat up to her nose she notices,

. . . a faint, acrid smell of burning, and then a smell which flooded Isabel with her childhood.  Long grass; sweet hay; the prickle of stalks on the back of her bare legs as she lay and looked up into the vast, polished East Anglian sky.

Readers of ghost stories will know at this point that Isabel is letting the genie out of the bottle.  There is more to this coat than she thinks.

On the next freezing night, Isabel sleeps with the greatcoat on top of her, its heavy weight pressing down on her and keeping her warm.  She is woken by a tapping on the living room  window and thinking that it is her husband Philip returning from a night visit she goes to the window, draws back the curtains and sees an RAF officer.  He gives her a thumbs-up signal as though he knows her and she draws the curtains back over the window in panic.  When she peeps through again, the man is gone.

I am definitely not going to describe any further details of the story.  It is gripping and highly atmospheric and is also moving with its references back to the sufferings of the war years.  The novel is a ghost story rather than a horror story, but has its shocks and its denouements but there is also a gentle calm to it at times which shows Dunmore’s skill as an experienced writer.   I enjoyed it greatly and raced through it during the breaks in a couple of busy days of decorating the living room.  Great cover design too!

I’ll be interested to see how the new Hammer imprint develops but if other books are to be of this quality then we have much to look forward to.


Just a quick mention of a new book blog by Brian Troiano called Babbling Books.  He looks like he reads the same sort of books that I do.  Brian only started writing his blog in January and I know how daunting it is to get started when there are so many other book blogs.

I apologise to anyone who’s commented here in the last week that I’ve not responded.  With childcare of our grand-children and the building and decorating works I’ve not had much time to get interactive.

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