By Helen Dunmore
Atlantic Monthly Press, $24, 208 pages
In “The Greatcoat,” a young pilot waiting at the window is the ghost of a war, a poignant symbol of the six years of combat that left Britain scarred economically and emotionally for a decade.
Helen Dunmore has written a gem of a ghost story that is as haunting as it is haunted, re-creating the bleakness of life and spirit that came in the wake of British victory in World War II. She sketches a dark image of a young wife in a Yorkshire town located next to a former airfield where Lancasters took off to bomb Berlin and often did not return.
In 1952, Isabel Carey is the wife of a busy doctor. She is lonely and suddenly finds herself trapped in a dream where the reality of the present is blurred by remembrance of the past. Her parents were killed by the Japanese in Singapore, and she has no family. She is depressed by the postwar life made dismal by the regulations imposed during the war years.
Rationing continues and shopping means queuing for meager and poor quality food in the midst of older women who make no effort to befriend her. She hears them grumble that you wouldn’t think we won the war. She finds herself taking long walks in the countryside where she is fascinated by the remains of what was once a throbbing airfield where the thunder of departing and returning aircraft once dominated the skies.
“She could pick out the control tower, hangars, roads, Nissen huts. They hadn’t demolished the buildings. They hadn’t bothered. They had just left everything to the weather.” She is troubled by the intense cold of the flat where she and her husband live with an eccentric and taciturn landlady who constantly walks the floors upstairs in the dreary house. It is not until Isabel finds an RAF greatcoat hidden at the back of a cupboard that she finds not only comfort and warmth, but an eerie entry to a life that is past.
Isabel finds herself living with a ghost whom she comes to love, who draws her away from her drab life with her doctor husband, who is too preoccupied with his work to recognize his wife’s growing distress.
It is with Alec, pilot of K-Katie, a Lancaster bomber, that Isabel relives a world now reduced to desolate farmland covered by the wreckage of makeshift buildings that were the temporary lodgings of those young air crews who daily flew dangerous bombing missions and often did not come back.
Wrapped in Alec’s greatcoat and his arms, Isabel wanders further and further from reality, aware of her peril yet unable to resist the doomed dead. They make love on the greatcoat in an empty Nissen hut. At one poignant moment, he takes her into the ruined hut that was once a bar on the airfield, and they move to the silent rhythm of past music.
Ms. Dunmore writes with immense sensitivity about the strange and fragile relationship between Alec and Isabel. She brings the days of the war back to horrifying reality as the bomber crews snatch what they can of precious weeks of life, relying on each other for companionship and loyalty, while aware of how unlikely their survival is. Alec’s brief visits to Isabel are sandwiched between flying, when flights canceled because of bad weather buy the crews more life.
Yet nothing can protect them from the danger they constantly face, not even Alec’s lucky silk gloves that he wore beneath his leather gauntlets, using them to gently touch the cockpit of the bomber called K-Katie every time they took off.
Gradually, facts infiltrate Isabel’s dazed mind. A local shopkeeper tells her about the bomber that crashed just outside the town during the war, flattening a farmhouse. She also discloses that Isabel’s landlady had lived there with her farmer husband and her child, but had spent much of her time in the house where the Careys now rent the downstairs flat. There were, she says, rumors about the air crews. And there comes the moment when Isabel finds the landlady in the house, staring at Alec, reproaching him, “You didn’t come. You said you’d come, and you never came.”
Not even knowledge of the grim truth prevents Isabel from a final gesture of farewell as she goes out in the night to hear the last sounds of the Lancaster struggling to make a landing and exploding in fire and death. The birth of the doctor and Isabel’s child and their move to a house in the country brings her a measure of peace.
Yet in this masterfully crafted and layered ghost story, it isn’t over, either for her or Alec. Or for the shrunken misery of a landlady who waited so long for a ghost. And there is one more subtle twist to the plot before it slips into peace. The greatcoat is still there.
“The air was still but down on the grass, the greatcoat’s heavy cloth rippled, as if a night wind were walking under it.”