Helen Dunmore’s new novel is an atmospheric ghost story. Set in Yorkshire in 1952, it’s the story of Isabel Carey & her growing obsession with the ghost of a young airman killed during WWII. Isabel & her husband Philip haven’t been married long. Philip is a GP & they’ve moved to Yorkshire so he can join a local practice. He’s out on call all the time & Isabel is slow to make friends. Their landlady, Mrs Atkinson, paces the floor in her flat upstairs night after night. The weather is freezing so when Isabel finds an old RAF greatcoat in a cupboard, she’s grateful for its warmth. That’s when Alec first appears.
Alec was a pilot, shot down on one of his last missions before he went on leave. On the first night that Isabel wears the greatcoat, there’s a tapping on the window & a man, a pilot is there when Isabel opens the curtains. She’s frightened & draws the curtains but the next time it happens, she convinces herself that the man is lost & needs help. Gradually, Alec appears whenever Isabel wears the coat. He obviously thinks she’s someone else as he assumes that she knows about his life. When Isabel is with him, she seems to be able to visit the past, Alec’s past. They visit the abandoned airfield near the village & it’s full of life, just as it would have been during the war. He sits on her bed, smoking one cigarette after another, jittery about another mission or trying to come down from the high of a mission completed.
The whole weight of the house seemed to press down on her. She was afraid again. Alec’s words echoed in her head, but now they were more than a promise: I’ll knock on your window. Swear you won’t go to sleep. She saw his eyes on her. Her heart clenched at the remembered expression on his face. He was outside in the dark and the wind, staring in at the warm, lit world. Whatever happened, she knew that Alec would come for her, and she would slip into that other life again, her mind clouded with memories that weren’t hers, her body moving to rhythms it had learned elsewhere. Nothing on earth could stop him from coming, or her from becoming that other woman, once he was there. There was no one strong enough to hold her back.
Isabel becomes obsessed with Alec as he visits her just before or just after a mission. Her loneliness & sense of isolation have made her vulnerable. She realises that if she stopped wearing the greatcoat, Alec would stop coming but she doesn’t want him to stop. Isabel gradually begins to discover why Alec is visiting her house & what part her mysterious landlady played in Alec’s story & the tragedy at its heart.
The Greatcoat is an absorbing story that beautifully evokes that grey period of austerity after WWII. The biting cold, Isabel’s growing estrangement from Philip & her isolation in the village are very real. Isabel’s life has been one of loss & loneliness from her childhood. She lacks confidence when shopping or making conversation & she’s intimidated by Mrs Atkinson. Philip is so absorbed in his new job, trying to save enough money for a home of their own, trying to prove himself as the new, young doctor, that he doesn’t have time to realize how desperately unhappy Isabel is. Isabel takes long walks in the country, visits the spookily abandoned airfield & feels an almost instant connection to Alec. The reader is with Isabel on her journey & I found it easy to believe what she believed. Alec hovers in that space between reality & the afterlife. Isabel has to find out what happened on the night Alec died so that she can set him free.
The Greatcoat reminded me of Susan Hill’s ghost stories. I loved the simplicity of the storytelling, the effortless way that Dunmore created that atmosphere of unhappiness that left Isabel open to Alec’s presence. The final chapters resolve some of the story but set up other troubles to come, after the end of the story, far into the future.