26 October 2014

The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

This time last year I organized a display of spooky tales for the library.  I chose The Greatcoat as one of the books and in no time at all it was snapped up by a customer.  The image of a handsome RAF officer peering through a frosty window on the cover does make it rather eye-catching.  Not only that, but there's something really appealing about the way a hardcover novella fits in your hands.  When a copy turned up in a $1 sale bin at Indigo I couldn't resist and what better month for a spooky read?

The prologue presents a RAF crew preparing for their twenty-seventh mission with only a few more days to go until leave.  There is bad fog and driving rain but scrubbing a flight means delay and the men just want to get on with the job at hand.

Stepping forward to 1952, Isabel Carey lights a fire to warm the dingy flat she shares with her husband in Kirby Minster.  The furnished flat doesn't come with enough blankets so one night Isabel digs through a cupboard until she finds a thick wool greatcoat shoved at the back.  Finally, Isabel sleeps soundly underneath its weight.  She dreams about being a child and hearing Lancaster bombers fly overhead on their way to Berlin.  During the following days, an out-of-service airfield just outside of town begins to fascinate Isabel.

Philip Carey is the new doctor in town sharing rounds with the elder Dr Ingoldby.  Despite being educated and quite keen to find employment for her own sake, Isabel reluctantly bows to Philip's wish that she keep herself busy at home.  There's a slight problem though, Isabel has very little confidence as a housewife and feels like an outsider when surrounded by other women with a keen eye on the butcher's scales and the state of fish on offer.  She is convinced the women stare at her as she walks through town so in turn she tries to avoid their glances.

At this point, knowing that Isabel's childhood was far from idyllic, I wondered about her state of mind.  Could this be a case of an unreliable narrator?  And so the fun begins.

While making a mess during an attempt at making steak and kidney pies one afternoon there is a tap at the window.

'There he was, an everyday figure, safe as houses, but her heart clenched in fear.  It was the look on his face:  recognition, a familiarity so deep he didn't have to say a word.  But she had never seen him before in her life'.

Running to the window, Isabel quickly closes the curtains over the man's face but she then returns to search the property.  The officer has vanished.  In a day or two there is more tapping but this time the mystery officer, Alec, is let inside the flat.  I am not going to say another word about the relationship that forms between Isabel and Alec.

What becomes apparent is that Alec is always on the verge of his crew's twenty-seventh mission regardless of how many times he appears.  Desperate to know more about certain events and the people involved, Isabel begins to ask questions.  While in town one day, a shopkeeper tells her about a bombing mission during the war and how it went terribly wrong.  Suddenly the gaps fill in, a decision must be made, and then an even spookier plot twist unfolds.

This novella ticked all sorts of boxes for me; I couldn't wait to get home from work to pick it up again.  If you have a free evening between now and Halloween The Greatcoat is an excellent way to pass the time.  And don't worry, you won't be too scared....

To listen to an incredible recording of officers flying a Lancaster during a bombing mission click here.


  1. Your review kept me on edge. Now to find this book.

  2. I loved this book when I read it a couple of years ago. I just looked at my review & see that you were keen to read it back then. I'm glad that you got to it eventually!

    1. It's clever, isn't it, Lyn. I'll certainly be doing my best to make sure it doesn't spend much time sitting on the shelf at the library. I wonder if customers get tired of me suggesting books they HAVE to read?

  3. Oh this one sounds so good! I love the idea of reading a spooky book for Halloween. By the way, wasn't Phillip Carey the name of the leading character in "Of Human Bondage"? Thanks for another great suggestion.

  4. You're right about Philip Carey, Sunday,....I wonder if that's just coincidence? You still have time to squeeze in a spooky short story or two before the witches fly...