Book Review: The Greatcoat

Tuesday 29 October 2013 by

The Greatcoat, Hammer, Helen Dunmore, Book, Paperback, WaterstonesThe Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

Published by Hammer

196 pages

In the winter of 1952, Isabel Carey moves to the East Riding of Yorkshire with her husband Philip, a GP. With Philip spending long hours on call, Isabel finds herself isolated and lonely as she strives to adjust to the realities of married life.

Woken by intense cold one night, she discovers an old RAF greatcoat hidden in the back of a cupboard. Sleeping under it for warmth, she starts to dream. And not long afterwards, while her husband is out, she is startled by a knock at her window.

Outside is a young RAF pilot, waiting to come in.

His name is Alec, and his powerful presence both disturbs and excites her. Her initial alarm soon fades, and they begin an intense affair. But nothing has prepared her for the truth about Alec’s life, nor the impact it will have on hers…


Helen Dunmore is one of my all-time favourite authors – her children’s books, poetry and adults novels are stunningly beautiful. The Greatcoat is a ghost story blended with a love tale, set in the austerity era of post-War 1950s.

Isabel is newly married, and newly independent thanks to her husband’s job as village doctor. Left alone in the flat, Isabel is overcome with loneliness. Which is why, when there is a knock at the window one night, she is drawn in to an intoxicating affair with a mysterious RAF officer.

But Alec is not all what he seems, and as Isabel finds herself getting further and further lost in his life, she starts to comprehend the full consequences of the relationship.

Dunmore creates bold, charismatic characters with ease, and Isabel and Alec are intoxicating to behold. The strength of her writing is its poetic thrill, and this is no different. Alec is haunting and wonderful, but his presence is an eerie cloud over the whole tale. Dunmore blends Isabel’s reality with the fantasy of Alec’s, until the two are interchangeable and you’re not sure what is real and what is not. She manages to evoke a strong sense of loss – of things gone by, things taken away and things not as they once were, or should be. I’m not a huge fan of romances as a rule, and I would say that The Greatcoat is a romance first and a ghost story second. But I read this in two sittings, and it’s a story that keeps retelling itself in my head.

There are still questions left at the end, which is perfect for a novel of this length, and creates a strong sense of what was, what is and what will be, leaving the reader grasping for more – reading lines over again to glean more detail, and holding the book open at the last page willing it not to end.

What I also love is that Alec and the landlady (an integral piece of the puzzle) are not likeable creatures for large parts of it, and this isn’t a ghost story/love story where you feel huge sympathy for the victims (apart from perhaps Alec, whose story is breathtakingly sad and his boyish innocence – and later fear – gives him that intoxicating quality that Isabel so easily falls for).

Isabel shows huge bravery, breaking the romantic trope in many respects for me, because she is the one who takes control and understands the consequences at the end.

If you’ve never read any Helen Dunmore, I would almost recommend reading this first – before her poetry and other novels – to truly get an idea of the scale of her writing skill and power. The Greatcoat has joined the ranks of the novels I gift to people who need something to read (and that is a high accolade indeed!) She is a fantastic author, and one I will continue to read for years to come.

5 Houses



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