Day 259: The Greatcoat

Cover for The GreatcoatI am not familiar with Helen Dunmore, but I looked for this book after reading a review of it on another blog citing it as a good ghost story.

At first I was inclined to dislike it. Isabel Carey is a new wife in 1952, married to a young doctor in a small village in Yorkshire. Isabel is a poorly trained housewife who spends her time disliking her new home in the bottom floor of the landlady’s house and feeling as if everyone is looking at her. She especially dislikes the landlady, Mrs. Atkinson, who paces back and forth on the floor above, sometimes all night.

Unable to get warm in the dank little house, one night she searches through a cupboard and finds an officer’s wool greatcoat, which she uses as an additional bedcover. The next night a strange man dressed as a World War II officer comes and taps on her window.

Soon the officer, Alec, begins coming to visit her and by his behavior shows that he thinks they are lovers. She knows almost immediately that he is a ghost but seems to passively accept their relationship. Who the soldier’s actual lover was should be almost immediately apparent, but Isabel doesn’t seem to guess.

At this point, I was extremely annoyed with the novel, believing I was supposed to find all this romantic when all I could think about was Philip, Isabel’s poor, hard-working husband, who only treats her kindly. The only negative thing about his character is his desire to protect Isabel from everything, and I believe that attitude was typical of the times. I also thought Isabel is a spoiled little brat who does little but complain and thinks nothing of launching into an affair with another man, ghost or not.

Eventually, though, the novel takes a more sinister turn, which is more to my taste. My final overall impression was ambivalence.

By the way, the Amazon write-up of this book (probably taken from the publishers) compares Dunmore as a historical novelist to Tolstoy and Emily Brontë. Aside from the oddness of an implicit comparison between those two writers, this is a gross overstatement of Dunmore’s abilities. What Dunmore has written is a slight, moderately entertaining novel that cannot be compared to the work of the other writers.

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