Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Obsession and Possession

I started reading this yesterday and finished it just half an hour ago, in a cold bath (it was hot when I climbed in, but I couldn't stop reading until I'd reached the end). This slim novel is one of the first in a new series published by Hammer (of Hammer Films fame). The Hammer branding is extremely subtle; there's nothing here to recall the glory days of schlock horror. Instead, there is Dunmore's restrained prose, perfectly-pitched and incredibly powerful.

It's the winter of 1952 (the year of Dunmore's birth), and Isabel Carey is newly-arrived in Yorkshire's East Riding, with her husband Philip, a GP. Shivering one night, she discovers an old RAF greatcoat hidden in the cupboard. When she sleeps under the coat for warmth, she dreams of a life that's not her own. Soon, while her husband is out, a knock at her window brings Alec, a young RAF pilot, searching for the woman he loves.

Reviews of The Greatcoat in the popular press have struggled to describe it as 'terrifying' or 'creepily chilling'. As if the Hammer name demands a horror tag. In fact, The Greatcoat is suffused with loneliness and longing, which is a very fine tradition belonging to the best ghost stories. This isn't to say that it doesn't have chilling moments - it does. In particular when Isabel tries to free herself from the insidious power of the greatcoat. But it's more - and better - than that.

The broken seam in time that allows Alec to come to Isabel's world, and lets her into his, is described with heart-breaking delicacy. Both are lost, yearning to find their way home. The wider world, recovering from war, is filled with lost souls; the story is layered with this sense of displacement and discovery. There is clear menace in Dunmore's themes of obsession and possession, but the overriding sense is of tragedy, in a grand classic tradition. Comparisons have been drawn with The Turn of the Screw, but I'd say Dunmore's economy of style is better suited to the genre than Henry James' verbosity.

As I finished the book, I hugged it, knowing I'd found a new contender for my Favourite Book of all time. Dunmore's writing is never less than impressive. Her novels, Talking to the Dead, and Your Blue-Eyed Boy, are two of the best crime novels I've ever read (despite never being labelled as such by her publishers). The Greatcoat is a potent reminder of her power to command language, character and plot. I loved every page.

Read my interview with Helen Dunmore in Fringe magazine.

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