Thursday 25 October 2012

The Greatcoat

Having rediscovered the pleasures of the pre-loaded audiobook I borrowed a couple more and have been listening recently to 'The Greatcoat' by Helen Dunmore. I reviewed her book 'A Spell of Winter' (the first Orange Prize winner) last year and really loved it. I picked this up after seeing the novel on the shelf when I was in Waterstones for the Literature Festival the other week. I was struck by a memory of the previous book which ends with the returning of Rob's army greatcoat and the lovely description of Cathy's reaction to it, it reminded me of how much I loved her writing.

The story is something of a ghost story; set in the 1950s it follows the newly married Isabel, struggling to get used to her new life as a doctor's wife, she discovers an old army greatcoat hidden in a cupboard and it brings forth the young airman who wore it. Alone for much of the time due to the demands of her husband's job Isabel finds herself drawn into Alec's life and affections as he appears randomly in her life whenever she wraps herself in the coat. Their relationship becomes an obsession for her, shadowed by the presence of her landlady tramping the floors of the flat upstairs. It is only after she discovers the landlady's history that she realises that it is not her who brings Alec to life but the landlady; she has trapped him in her memories of his final days and her anguish over what became of him. Isabel gets rid of the coat in an attempt to distance herself from Alec but some time later he creeps back into her life. Even understanding she cannot change his real fate Isabel determines she will release him from the spell that his ghost appears to be under.  

Written with her usual very intense atmosphere and wonderful attention to detail the story immerses you in both the drama and excitement of the war and the austerity of the 50's. In essence it has a touch of magical realism about it, with Isabel's life moving seamlessly back and forth in time, but with references to her childhood experiences living near an active RAF base, combined with her preoccupied and somewhat formal husband, just maybe there is an element of wishful fantasy about the dashing young airman. Quite a difference in story style from her other books it was hugely clever and satisfying. Highly recommended. I have 'The Siege' on the TBR pile and will tackle it in the near future, coincidentally it was recommended by someone I spoke to at another lit festival event.


  1. I have rediscovered audiobooks too - and interestingly my young son even prefers them to his gameboy when on car journeys.

    Currently listening to - Richard Burton reading Under Milk Wood

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  3. I have had that one too, several years ago, he has the most wonderful reading voice, and of course just perfect for Under Milk Wood.
    Audiobooks were a staple for car journeys when my kids were young, prior to Harry Potter I think one of the favourites was Black Beauty
    thanks for visiting


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