The Greatcoat Helen Dunmore

Hammer, pp.208, 9.99

Driving past several long abandoned second- world-war airfields in East Anglia last year I was struck by how spooky they seemed, just like the decommissioned army base that used to exist near me. Places where people have not only lived and worked but which form the background of wartime drama, and from which men went to their deaths, are bound to be haunted, and in Helen Dunmore’s short novel, it is an airfield that once saw Lancaster Bombers fly out into the night that forms a ghostly scene.

Isabel is newly married to a doctor, Philip, and the two have moved to Yorkshire where he is now a GP. It is the early 1950s, the country is still redolent of wartime hardships, ration books, nasty linoleum in rented flats and nosey landladies. It is the landlady who walks up and down the flat above theirs who causes the first intrusion into what should be a blissful early married life. Why does she walk like that? Ghosts pace up and down, but when she is cross-questioning Isabel, or repeating the petty house rules to her, this woman is all too real and substantial.

The place is cold, coke is strictly rationed, and the bed, especially when Philip goes off on night calls, is icy. Then Isabel, hunting for extra blankets, finds an old greatcoat hidden at the back of the wardrobe and puts it on the bed. At once, she is warm and comfortable and sleeps deeply. But the greatcoat was once worn by a young airman, who comes to the window and taps on it when Isabel is alone. Soon, he is taking her out to the airfield on his motorbike. They start a clandestine affair, meeting in huts that are empty, drinking at a bar without a barman, and dancing on a dusty, deserted floor.

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Philip works all hours; Isabel cannot get on with the local women however much she tries, but instead wants to go back to work as a teacher. Philip disapproves, the landlady watches her movements over the banister, and then begins to talk about the greatcoat and the man who wore it.

Isabel becomes pregnant — with a ghost’s child? When Michael is born he takes up her time, attention and affections; the family moves out of the icy flat and starts a happy new life in a country cottage. But then someone lets out a secret about it, and about the landlady and her husband and child who met a terrible end.

Fictional ghosts do not have to be terrifying, but they do have to induce a sense of profound unease, by their very existence and by virtue of their intentions towards the living. The ghost of the young airman is handsome, charming and seductive, and the problem is that he does not arouse any sort of fear, not so much as a shudder. His purpose in haunting Isabel does not seem to be malign — which draws any sort of sting there might have been. The floor-pacing, malevolent landlady is more alarming, but there is a rather worrying confusion between her roles as a living, bad-tempered woman and a vengeful ghost, as we swing between wartime past and bleak post-war present.

The one thing the book lacks as an example of its genre is ‘the turn of the screw’. There is much pleasant scene-setting and description, long preambles to key scenes which the reader can anticipate too readily, and some rather repetitive marital collisions and misunderstandings. Helen Dunmore is as good a writer as ever she was, but I get the feeling this is not really her genre.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Fiction, Novel