"It’s about a crack in time, where the past can come alive within the present..." Helen Dunmore

Posted on 4th November 2012 by Waterstones
Helen Dunmore spoke to us about her haunting novel The Greatcoat...

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 ini- tial 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 ...

We asked Helen Dunmore a few questions about the story:

How did you first get the idea for The Greatcoat?

I developed the idea by first writing a very long outline, which is unusual for me, with the storyline, character notes and lots of research. I worked from that outline, but of course there are always surprises in the writing, you find things that you really didn’t expect to happen.

It's a ghost story?

Yes, it is a ghost story because it’s about a crack in time, where the past can come alive within the present. It also questions whether the past has ever really died, whether the passionate love between Alec and the older woman has left an imprint on where Isobel and Philip come to live. It is a novel about the relationship between past and present.

It is a very passionate novel. Was this something you intended?

Whenever you write, the characters take hold of you and begin to behave in ways you couldn’t have predicted at the moment of conceiving the story. I always knew this would be a passionate story, because it is about the most intense experiences people can ever have. I wanted it to have a strong physical texture so the reader can think "I know these people, I know exactly what they are experiencing."

Do you have a favourite character in The Greatcoat?

I rarely have favourite characters. Because even a difficult character can be interesting to the author. In The Greatcoat I was gripped by Isobel, by the sense of her mind slipping from past to present, by the restrictions around her and her struggle. But I felt sympathy for all the characters.

At times it seems to reveal something personal. Did you have a relative who told you what it was like to live in post-war Britain?

The research I did for The Greatcoat was a mixture of formal research, into such things as the bombings, and memories. Memories of people I knew and personal memories. I was a child of the fifties and so was surrounded by the post-war atmosphere. There was still rationing when I was born, and there was a sense of greyness, of places having been bombed. But also there was a sense of people looking forward, to build a new future, which is something I wanted to convey in the novel.


You can read a free preview of The Greatcoat here or buy it at your local Waterstones bookshop ( or online at (


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