The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

the greatcoat

First Published: 2012 by Hammer
My copy: Borrowed from the Library where I work

Memorable quote: “It seemed as if she could put out her hand and touch thousands of lives which had never ended but had broken off into a silence that hung more heavily than any noise. They were here, she knew it.”

Thoughts:
I was drawn to this novella for two reasons: the publisher, Hammer (of Horror fame), and the proudly emblazoned quote from the Independent on Sunday proclaiming this to be “a perfect ghost story.” Dunmore’s premise here certainly ticks many of the boxes of a good chiller:  a post World War Two setting, full of scarred landscapes and traumatic memories not entirely repressed; a lonely young housewife struggling to adapt to married life in a strange town; a mysterious landlady and the strange lure of an abandoned airfield nearby. But as any cook will know, the right ingredients alone don’t make a good cake, they need to be handled correctly too – and somehow the scares I was anticipating here just didn’t quite materialise. Isabel’s experiences in this story should be creepy and there are a few unexpected twists along the way, but – perhaps because the character herself is so utterly unquestioning –  I just never felt the prickly kind of fear, or concern for her safety, that can make a truly good ghost story so riveting.

So, The Greatcoat didn’t succeed as the kind of spooky tale I expected from its cover and its marketing, but as a piece of vaguely sinister historical fiction it actually has a lot to offer. Dunmore paints a convincing picture of the life of a 1950s housewife and where this novella is most absorbing is in its evocation of the lingering aftermath of war. The street lights may be back on, and the bombers no longer rumbling overhead but the war and its tragedies are not so easily forgotten. I liked the way Dunmore repeatedly applies words like ‘haunted’ and ‘possessed’ to mundane everyday experiences. It is in such experiences that novella’s real sense of menace exists. Isabel’s uncomfortable small talk at the butcher’s shop and her struggles to tell her preoccupied husband about her day were more convincing and  somehow more unsettling than the more obviously supernatural-seeming thrust of the main plot.

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