The Greatcoat

Helen Dunmore

In the winter of 1952, Isabel Carey moves to the East Riding of Yorkshire with her husband Philip, a GP. With Philip spending long hours on call, Isabel finds herself isolated and lonely as she strives to adjust to the realities of married life. Woken by intense cold one night, she discovers an old RAF greatcoat hidden in the back of a cupboard. Sleeping under it for warmth, she starts to dream. And not long afterwards, while her husband is out, she is startled by a knock at her window. Outside is a young RAF pilot, waiting to come in. His name is Alec, and his powerful presence both disturbs and excites her. Her initial alarm soon fades, and they begin an intense affair. But nothing has prepared her for the truth about Alec's life, nor the impact it will have on hers...

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Author interview with Richard and Judy

Opening Windows on the Past: Creating Characters in The Greatcoat



I love ghost stories, and this one is hugely atmospheric. It exists in a haze of smoky, cold gloom. Isabel is a young newlywed married to Philip, a GP embarking on his first practice in a small East Riding town in Yorkshire.

But what defines this story is the period in which it takes place – 1952. The second world war is over, but for most of the UK, life is still extremely hard. Food is still rationed; so is coal. Isabel and Philip rent a two-roomed flat in an old house where the only other resident is the landlady, Mrs Atkinson, who lives alone on the top floor. She is aloof and remote, hostile to young Isabel, who tries desperately to make her dinghy, freezing flat into a home.

The dark and cold of the house and surrounding town is oppressive. Isabel tries to get to grips with being a housewife, buying rationed food at local shops, but she feels an outsider, gauche and inexperienced.

Freezing at night in the bed she shares with her husband, she searches the flat for extra blankets. At the back of a cupboard she finds an old greatcoat – the kind an RAF officer would have worn during the war. She puts it on the bed for warmth, and is pulled into another reality.

The owner of the greatcoat, Alec, an RAF pilot once based at the local airfield, comes tapping at her window. The only problem is that Alec is dead.


I really enjoyed the authentic wartime detail in this book. Dunmore - the airfield where Alec and his comrades lived and from which they flew on their missions - is wonderfully, evocatively described. Deserted and semi derelict when Isabel first stumbles upon it, Dunmore vividly evokes the story and spirit of the young, doomed Bomber Command pilots who faced annihilation in the most dangerous theatre of the entire war. Plagued by fear, survivors somehow managed to struggle on to the next mission.

The sad-eyed ghost of Alec, who always appears at the point in his life just before he flew on the raid which killed him, is irresistible to Isobel. Because she is so lonely, in a strange, cold county where her GP husband works long hours, the young housewife and ghostly pilot embark on a passionate affair.

Isabel becomes pregnant. Her husband is ecstatic. With their new baby boy, they move to a pretty house in the countryside. It is there that Isabel begins to understand the connection between Alec and her old landlady. But Mrs Atkinson now lies dying in a York hospital.

Alec makes one final visit to Isabel, appearing to her in the sunlit garden of her new home. And it is only in that moment that Isabel begins to grasp what his presence really means, and why he came to her. What was the connection between Alec and Mrs Atkinson? And what of Isobel’s baby? Is he Philip’s? Or can even the dead create new life?

Reviews & Comments

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  • This is one of those books which you take for granted, I picked it up to do a little light reading and found myself unable to put put it down again. It has some wonderful characters and the story itself drags you along for an old fashioned ghostly tale. I have recommended this book to all of my friends and they all ended up loving it as much as I do. It has earned itself a place on my favourites shelf and I shall look forward to reading it again on a cold winters night.

    Debra Midgley

  • What a great read! Couldn't put it down and finished it in less than 24 hours. An intriguing, chilling book set just after the 2nd world war when Britain was still in the grips of rationing and the aftermath of war. I loved the story but it did take over my dreams!


  • My expectations were perhaps too high given its comparison with an "elegant Lady in Black". It wasn't a terrible read but neither was it chilling, at least not for me. I am sorry not to like because it had all the ingredients for a chilling read but just didn't hit the spot for me.


  • I was disappointed perhaps my expectations were too high given the comparison of an "elegant" Woman in Black stated on the cover. Just as I believed it was going to get chilling it faded......the story was believable but the characters not so much so - I am an avid Richard & Judy Book club fan and it is rare that I don't enjoy a book but this one left me disappointed.


  • I enjoyed this book and read it in a day. A very pleasant and easy read

    Su Trinder

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