Saturday, 18 February 2012

REVIEW The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

For those of us who grew up sneakily watching late night BBC re-runs of Taste the Blood of Dracula the re-emergence of Hammer is a joy. What has been really impressive is the fact that the company seems determined to work on some really exciting things - The Woman in Black, for example, and Let Me In.

It came as a surprise when it was announced that Hammer would be starting a fiction imprint, and a surprise again when the company excelled themselves by signing up Helen Dunmore as their first writer in a series (to include Jeanette Winterson, Melvin Burgess and Tim Lebbon). Now, Helen Dunmore is simply one of the best writers in the country; it really is a standout signing for Hammer. Not someone who writes in the supernatural genres - Dunmore is more recently known for her recent Leningrad sequence of The Siege and The Betrayal - it was still a coup that made perfect sense. From the beginning of her career - a book like the haunting Zennor in Darkness - she has been unafraid as a writer to explore the dark side of life and love, hope and loss. One only needs to look at her recent National Prize-winning poem 'The Malarkey' to see how she can dwell in realm of the chilling and mysterious. Her win for that piece was no one-off, either; Helen Dunmore is also an exceptionally talented poet.

So, this seemed an inspired piece of casting, and by and large the resulting book, The Greatcoat, is a triumph. That does seem slightly qualified, and it is, but more on that later.

This short book - novella perhaps - is set in Yorkshire in 1954. The spectre of World War Two still stalks the shadows as newly married Isabel Carey struggles to settle to her new life as 'the Doctor's wife' in a lean world of rationing and reconstruction. Her husband is out on call most of the time, and in her solitude she tussles with Steak and Kidney Pies, fatty meat from the butcher, and gossipers who spot her isolation yards away. To make matters worse, her new flat is cold and forbidding, and the landlady, a bleak character with little social skills, is prone to pacing the floors above at all times, and does not make this life any more welcoming.

Into this dour picture arrives the greatcoat. Frozen one night, Isabel looks through some of the 'furnished flat' items for some extra source of warmth, and finds an old RAF greatcoat. When she wraps herself in this for the first time, she has no idea of the crack in time this act will open. Without throwing out too many spoilers, the greatcoat - like Professor Parkins and his whistle - will serve as the join between the real world, and the world of the other.

What follows is a beautifully written and extremely moving story. It is a love story, I think, and it vividly captures the particularly heart wrenching world of the RAF flight crew - where on 'ops' they face terrible danger and distress, and yet when they return must find a way to fit back in to the civil conventions of war time England, day to day. Each hurried kiss with a sweetheart might be the last, and then the next, and the next. Alec, the airman in this story, seems worn to the point of brittleness by it all. The scenes between Alec and Isabel as they float around the dancefloors and mess halls of an airbase that is one moment alive, the next a shadow, is reminscent of Jack Torrance's nights at the bar in The Overlook. Dunmore captures the era incredibly well, and for the first time - and this is a result of reading the book - this reviewer has started to sense just how far away it is all getting - slowly the Second War is moving as distant as the First in the imagination. There are very real ghosts in this book.

What of my slightly cagey comments before? Well, I think there is no getting away from it. The book is published by Hammer. It is marketed as a ghost story. Is it scary?

The answer, on one level, has to be no, I'm afraid. For me, the gold standard here is Susan Hill's The Woman in Black, a book that Hammer has now filmed. Some people are scared by different things in fiction, but that book scared the wits out of me. The unique, one-off combinations of place, character, imagery simply elevate that book to the top of the list. Like writing good comedy, writing scary is very hard to achieve. The Woman in Black succeeds, and then some. It sets a high bar, so much so that even Hill herself has struggled, I feel, to repeat the trick. One thing I hope for the new film version - I haven't seen it yet - is that it helps cement Hill's original book as one the great Twentieth Century supernatural classics - to be spoken of in times to come as we speak of Stoker, or MR James. That it was itself a kind of homage to earlier supernatural fiction should not, I think, steal away its right to real status.

The Greatcoat just isn't scary on that level. There are one or two chilly moments, and a scene towards the end that has a bit of hair raising about it, but on the whole it isn't a book that will demand you have all the lights on when you're reading it. But, and I think this is important, it is a book that if you think about it too much afterwards, may well make you reach for the bedside light. The ambience of the book, its darkness and emptiness, and certain set pieces - the old landlady dragging herself back and forth in the night, the waltzing on leaves and rust - have a particularly eerie quality that sustains. Most importantly, the haunting of the emotions, the closeness of darkness at any point, the closeness of loss, the fragility of the every day, becomes deeply unsettling. No more is this the case than in the last parts of the book - which I found incredibly mysterious and affecting.There is a search after meaning which is not at all contrived, and is, I feel, a heartfelt connection with what is most profound about ghost story writing.