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THE GREATCOAT by Helen Dunmore


by Helen Dunmore

Pub Date: Oct. 5th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2060-1
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

After a grimly realistic portrayal of postwar East Berlin in The Betrayal (2010), Dunmore offers up an eerie story about postwar England that may, or may not, be a ghost story.

In 1952, newlyweds Isabel and Philip move to East Riding where Philip has taken his first job as a doctor. While Philip plunges into his work, Isabel is lonely and adrift in her own life. Mrs. Atkinson, the dour elderly landlady, is always pacing the floor above, and Isabel’s downstairs apartment is dank and cold; looking in a closet for an extra blanket, she comes across a military greatcoat and wraps herself in it for warmth. Another night not long afterward, she wakes to a tapping at the window and finds a young pilot staring in and calling her nickname, Issy. The pilot begins visiting regularly. Whether he’s a ghost or figment of her imagination remains unclear. Together they visit a nearby World War II airfield; she sees abandoned disrepair, but to him, the base is in full wartime operation. They make love. Afterward, she stands in front of her house with him unseen by the local woman. She inexplicably knows his name is Alec and that he is waiting to fly a bombing mission to Germany that has been delayed. She finds herself increasingly filled with another woman’s memories—a farmhouse, a baby, Alec. Meanwhile, she and the touchingly drawn Philip repeatedly fumble their attempts at love and intimacy. When Isabel witnesses Alec and Mrs. Atkinson share an exchange of terrible longing, she sees why Alec actually has appeared. 

The slight tale crumbles under too much scrutiny but beautifully expresses emotional longing in ways both natural and supernatural.