Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat is many things—most of which can be modified with beautiful. It’s beautifully written and paced. It’s beautifully haunting. It even seems beautifully effortless as if each perfect word simply floated down to the page (although anyone who writes knows that books rarely ever happen that way).
The Greatcoat is a ghost story and focuses on Isabel Carey, a newlywed living in East Riding, Yorkshire in 1952. Her husband, Philip, is a physician, and having only recently moved to East Riding and trying to establish his practice, Philip is somewhat absent figure. This leaves a young and lost Isabel alone in a cold and unfriendly apartment with only the book Early Days: An Introduction to Housekeeping for the Young Wife to guide her. With rationing still in place and money tight, Isabel searches through a closet, looking for a blanket. She finds, instead, an old RAF greatcoat and uses it in place of a blanket. And with the greatcoat comes Alec, a soldier who died tragically during World War II.
The plot may not keep many guessing; in fact, it’s pretty easy to see where the story is going and how the dots connect. But the point of The Greatcoat doesn’t seem to be to startle or scare—the emotions the book conjures have more to do with loss and sadness than nail-biting fear. Even traditionally happy entities, like adorable curly-haired babies, can’t seem to escape the taint of the war. When Isabel mentions wanting a large family, her aunt notes that everyone wants large families “these days” and suggests it’s because of the “natural instinct” to replace: “The word stayed in Isabel’s head for weeks. Replacement. But the frightening thing was how easily the world got on without the dead. All those thousands—millions—yet somehow the houses were full of people, just the same. The dead were gone. They were thought of, but the year rolled round, and then there was another year…”
Many of the book’s finest points are in the details and the appeals to the senses. In a culture such as ours that seems to rely primarily on visual stimulation, reading a book that spends so much time on sounds is particularly gratifying. Even more interesting, despite the attention to sound, much of it noisy, the back cover describes the book both as “quiet” and “gentle”. And indeed the book does have a quiet intensity. It doesn’t scream or shout like many ghost stories or thrillers. But within this quiet intensity is sound:
“The more Isabel listened, the more she heard. A tractor far away, and the scream of gulls that came inland to feed from the furrows. The high, invisible skirling of larks in the summer sky when she lay on her back in the meadow that belonged to the house, although it was leased to a farmer who mowed it for hay. The drip of the kitchen tap, the buzz of a bumblebee in the depths of a foxglove flower, and Michael’s crooning as he settled himself to sleep. There were a thousand sounds.”
In rest of the book as well, a thousand sounds—the motorcycle Alec rides, the heavy footsteps of the landlady in the upstairs flat. And perhaps the most important sounds of all, the WWII planes Isabel hears whenever Alec is in her world:
“She heard it lumbering down the sky. It sounded all wrong. It was a Lanc but the engines weren’t making the safe Merlin roar she would know anywhere, in her sleep even. They were jagging at the air, trying to cut though it, coughing, stuttering, and then suddenly they bellowed as if the pilot had forgotten to switch off the superchargers…”
And then “there was absolute silence”.
In the end The Greatcoat is a novel filled with ghosts, some come tapping at windows looking for lost loves, but some are the silent type—the wounds that don’t heal, the scars that don’t fade, the sorrows no one can see. The Greatcoat won’t be the scariest ghost story ever read, but it will perhaps be one of the most beautifully haunting.