Tuesday 29 March 2022

Ghosts of loss, death, injury and trauma

The Greatcoat Helen Dunmore has been described as "first and last, a poet", but I discovered her through her ghost story, The Greatcoat. Set a few years after World War II, it is unnerving and nightmarish.

The opening Prologue provides the background to the story, opening with a group of RAF men waiting to be taken to their aircraft for a mission. Fast forward to 1952, and we meet Isabel, recently married, living in a new town, and who lost both parents in the war when she was aged eight. She finds it difficult to make friends and is lonely, perhaps suffering from depression, but tells herself it's her own fault. Her husband Philip is sympathetic but has no time to help his new wife deal with her feelings: "The thought of her solitude nagged at the back of his mind, until he forgot it in the intensity of his days". His primary concern is his new career as a country doctor.

The couple's relationship is of its time; the man goes out to work, the wife stays at home, looks after the house, has children. Isabel is stuck in the flat, unfulfilled by housework, and suggests she might do some private tutoring to get her out of the house. This annoys Philip. "He didn’t want her to tutor local children in French. He didn’t want her going into other people’s houses, earning money and using her qualifications. He wanted her to learn to cook".

There's something odd, too, about the landlady of the young couple's flat, who keeps Isabel awake with her constant walking back and forth overhead at night. As autumn turns to winter the days become darker, the weather turns colder, and Isabel cannot get warm. The world is closing in on the young woman, stifling her, and filling the reader with foreboding. On discovering an old greatcoat hidden at the back of a cupboard, Isabel sleeps under it to keep warm, and then starts to experience dreamlike wartime episodes of someone else's life.

In the Afterword, Dunmore talks about "a particular blend of stoicism, optimism and weariness" in the post-WW2 years. People were so determined that life would be better that they refused to talk about the "losses, deaths, injuries and traumas". In the book, Isabel has never really grieved her parents' deaths, and those around her value the stiff-upper-lip above emotional impulse. It's the unspoken, the silence, the unwillingness to deal with the past that haunts both Isabel and the community in which she lives, and prevents their ghosts from resting.

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