A vibration, very far off, chafing the air

The Greatcoat
by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore, who sadly died on 5 June, spent the last years of her life in Bristol. I’ve read and enjoyed a few of her books and I wanted to honour her by reading one I had heard praised many times. It doesn’t hurt that this book was part of the launch of Hammer Books – a horror imprint from Arrow Books and the great film studio Hammer.

The story is set at the end of 1952. Winter is closing in on the small Yorkshire town where Isabel has moved with her new husband, Philip. He’s a doctor, working at the local surgery. She’s educated and would like to work, but Philip is keen for her to learn how keep house and prepare herself for motherhood. This leaves her sat at home struggling to learn to cook with still-rationed food, or out meeting other housewives who make it clear her education marks her as different. She’s lonely.

“She put her hands on the cold sill, ready to draw her head back inside, but a sound arrested her: a vibration, very far off, chafing the air. She listened for a long time but the sound wouldn’t come any closer and wouldn’t define itself. As it faded it pulled at her teasingly, like a memory that she couldn’t touch, until the town was silent.”

She’s also constantly cold. Until one day she finds an old RAF greatcoat in a cupboard. Into her loneliness comes a literal knocking at the window – a young man in RAF uniform claiming to be stationed at the nearby airfield. But that airfield has been abandoned since the end of the war and there’s no reason for soldiers to still be around. Is Alec a ghost? And how is Isabel experiencing memories about him, of being someone else, when he’s around?

This story deals with the legacy of war – its effect at the time and afterward on both soldiers and civilians. Isabel’s back story, which we learn gradually, is heavily linked to the war. The story also deals with the loneliness of moving somewhere new and of the weight of expectation of a newly married woman. And it looks at the limited options available to women – even those who received an education were expected to only work if they had to, i.e. until but definitely not after they married.

“His boots were on, and his greatcoat wrapped around him. He set his cap on his head, and he was gone. She heard the door bang, and ran out into the hall after him, pulled open the front door and looked right and left up the street. There was no-one. The fog pushed towards her, and she shivered. You couldn’t even see the minster clearly. How would the Lanc ever land safely? As she thought this, she realised that the noise of its engines was fading. Fading, and then gone.”

The ghost is an interesting device to explore these issues. It’s a perfect route to look at loneliness, but the other subjects are perhaps less obvious choices. Dunmore’s writing is typically low-key, so what in other hands could have been hugely melodramatic is anything but. It is, however, tinged with sorrow. Perhaps I should have read this in autumn, with nights coming earlier and a chill in the air that would be complemented by a little horror. Thankfully there are plenty more in Dunmore’s back catalogue that I haven’t read.

Published 2012 by Arrow Books in association with Hammer.

Source: I think I bought this secondhand, probably from a charity shop.