The Greatcoat – Helen Dunmore

The-Greatcoat-Helen-DunmoreI am a Helen Dunmore fan, no doubt about it. Although her novels aren’t especially propulsive, I still find her work compulsively readable. She is particularly gifted when it comes to creating believable and sympathetic characters and her novels are moody and atmospheric. Her latest novel, The Greatcoat, caught my eye in the horror section – of all places.

Isabel Carey is a young bride who has moved to Yorkshire with her husband, Philip, a doctor.  They’ve been married just two months and this move to Kirby Minster is isolating: it’s a small town where they are clearly outsiders, Isabel is somewhat socially awkward and “bookish” and although she considers finding some work, Philip doesn’t think it would be acceptable for the wife of the town’s newest doctor to be employed. It is 1952. Although the war is over, both Isabel and Philip “had been children of wartime and all they asked of food was that it should fill them up.”  Good thing: Isabel is a terrible cook and food is still scarce and often unpalatable. Isabel is clearly out of her depth. She is “a little girl pretending to be her mother.”

Isabel and her husband take a flat in the home of Mrs. Atkinson, a woman Isabel dislikes on sight.  The flat is cold and grey and their landlady is constantly pacing the floor over their head. There is something decidedly menacing about her.

One particularly cold night, Isabel roots around in a closet looking for something extra to put on the bed and discovers an old greatcoat.

It was a coat. An RAF   officer’s greatcoat, she saw at once, recognising it with a thud of memory. There was the heavy, slatey grey-blue  wool, the buttons, the belt with its heavy brass buckle. It had been folded up a long time, she thought.

The coat does provide warmth, but it also brings a visitor. A man comes to her window:

She saw the pallor of his face first, as it seemed to bob against the glass, too high up to belong to a man who had his feet on the ground. The street lamp lit him from the side, throwing the sharp shadow of his cap over his face. He was too close, inside the railings that separated the house from the pavement. Of course, the level of the ground there was higher than the level of the floor inside. That was why he seemed to float in middair. A man in a greatcoat.

From this point in the novel, Dunmore elegantly weaves past and present as Isabel succombs to loneliness and the thrall of the past.

The Greatcoat was published under the Hammer banner (horror aficianados will recognize Hammer as the British production company behind  films like The Woman in Black and Let Me In.  They’ve entered the world of publishing in partnership with Arrow, a subsidiary of Random House. It’s nice to read a “horror” story that is less about blood and guts and more about the kind of chills which prickle your skin and send a shiver up your back. There are no mosters here, but The Greatcoat is deliciously creepy nonetheless.

Wild – Cheryl Strayed

WildTP_Books-330I am of the opinion that everyone has a story to tell – that doesn’t mean everyone should tell it, though. Cheryl Strayed’s memoir should have made for a compelling read, but ended up winning “Book I Enjoyed Reading the Least” at our final book club meeting. (Although in my mind, it was  neck and neck with Death Comes to Pemberley for the position.)

When I teach memoir to students in my writing class, we talk a lot about the ‘why’? Why is this the story you are telling? What have you taken away from this experience? If you want to take a reader on the journey through your life, there has to be a pretty compelling reason.

Some memoirs are more successful than others. In order for a memoir to work – for me at least – it has to combine three elements: story, character and writing. So, for example, Elizabeth Gilbert’s best selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love both worked and didn’t work for me. The writing was terrific; I loved the idea of her journey, but I didn’t like her very much. Let’s compare Eat, Pray, Love to another best-selling memoir, Julie & Julia. I loved the story, the writing and Julie herself.

Then there’s Wild. At twenty-six Cheryl Strayed is still mourning the death of her mother, who died when she was 22,  the dissolution of her marriage, which ended soon after, and recovering from her addiction to a guy named Joe and their shared heroin habit. Good times. Impulsively, she decides to hike the Pacific Coast Trail. That’s 4268 km of therapy. With very little preparation (or at least it seemed that way to me – she bought a book and some ill-fitting hiking books and suddenly she was walking), Strayed embarks on a journey which she hopes will clear her head or mend her broken heart.

Pacific-Crest-TrailWhen the book opens, Cheryl has lost a boot over the edge of a mountain:

My boot was gone. Actually gone.

I clutched its mate to my chest like a baby, though of course it was futile. What is one boot without the other boot. It is nothing. It is useless, an orphan forevermore, and I could take no mercy on it. It was a big lug of a thing, of genuine heft, a brown leather Raichle boot with a red lace and metal fasts. I lifted it high and threw it with all my might and watched it fall into the lush trees and out of my life.                                         …

I looked south, to where I’d been, to the wild land that had schooled and scorched me, and considered my options. There was only one, I knew. There was always only one.

To keep walking.

I felt like Strayed’s journey had all sorts of potential. I mean, her life was a total mess and here was her opportunity to work out her issues and reset her course. But the more I read the less I cared. I can’t quite say what it was about her, but others in book club had the same sort of feeling: we just didn’t like Strayed.

Wild felt like a missed opportunity to me.  Regardless of whether your relationship is awesome or toxic, the death of a parent is a game-changer. Strayed’s brother and sister and her beloved step-father, Eddie, sort of scatter to the wind and it made me wonder why. When my parents died – first my mom and then a couple years later, my dad – my three younger brothers and I circled the wagons and became even closer. We understood that it was just us now and ‘us’ was important. Strayed’s brother doesn’t even visit his mother when she is dying in the hospital.

So, is Strayed ‘cured’ after her long walk.  I doubt it. While on the surace it would seem that her journey to  the Bridge of the Gods (and oh, those heavy-handed metaphors!) delivers her back to herself, I’m not sold.

Autobiography of My Dead Brother – Walter Dean Myers

9780060582913-LWhile this wasn’t a book I particularly enjoyed, I absolutely see its merits. Autobiography of My Dead Brother is the story of 15-year-old Jesse who grows up in a violent New York neighbourhood.  He’s smart, talented and although he’s got all the typical teenage issues – he’s not going to make decisions which adversely impact his life.

His best friend is Rise. Rise is seventeen and he and Jesse have been friends since they were little.

His mother likes to tell me that when Rise first saw me, he was scared of me. She said they had a puppy and a turtle and he liked to play with them both, but when he saw me he started crying.

I didn’t remember any of that, but me and Rise grew up to be really close. He was more than my best friend – he was really like a brother.

Myers’ novel opens, Jesse and his friend C.J. are at the funeral of their friend, Bobby, who has been killed in a drive-by shooting. While Jesse and Bobby are horrified by the event because, after all, Bobby wasn’t doing anything, just sitting on his stoop, Rise thinks Bobby “went out like a man.” It’s an early indication that Jesse and Rise might be heading in two different directions.

Rise wants Jesse, an artist, to draw his autobiography and so the reader starts to see Rise through Jesse’s very focused lens. We see his “funny way of walking, with one shoulder higher than the other”; we see Rise’s home life (he lives with his mom and aging maternal grandparents); we see Jesse start to feel the troubling disconnect between him and Rise.

Myers also captures the adults in this book very well. None of these kids come from uncaring families. While some come from single parent households, all the parents work and care and even the police are painted as fair and reasonable human beings. But there still manages to be trouble for Jesse and his friends.

The book is interesting; the drawings are great (done by Christopher Myers, the author’s brother) and Myers certainly writes authentically about the experience of  – in this case – African American kids who just happen to live in a neighbourhood where crappy things happen. Ultimately though, this is a story about the friendship between two kids which unravels over time.

I know a lot of boys would really enjoy it.