Friday 6 May 2011

The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse

Kate Mosse came to fame in 2006 with the prize-winning international best-seller Labyrinth. I read that and enjoyed it; like so many doorstop novels of the time concerning complex historical mysteries involving religion and with a dash of added fantasy, it was compared with The Da Vinci Code, and as usual this did it no favours because Mosse's book was much better researched and written.

She has published a few other books but I hadn't read any of them until The Winter Ghosts, first published in 2009. She returns to the subject which she covered so intensively in Labyrinth: the persecution of the heretical Cathars in medieval Languedoc, in south-west France (where the author has a home). The structure is that of stories within stories. The first story begins in 1933 with an Englishman, Frederick Watson, visiting an antiques dealer in Toulouse in order to obtain a translation of an old document written in Occitan - the ancient language of that part of France. To explain his interest he tells the dealer how he came to possess the document, a story which occupies almost the entire novel.

Watson's story began five years earlier on his first visit to Languedoc, a time when he was travelling to try to recover from the long-term grief and depression resulting from the death of his beloved elder brother in the Great War. He crashed his car in a snowstorm in a remote rural area and walked to a small village, a grim and depressing place. He was invited to attend an annual fiesta in a large hall, and when he arrived was impressed by how authentically medieval it was, with the villagers all in costume. He strikes up a conversation with Fabrissa, an enchanting young woman who seems to understand and sympathise with all of his problems, and tells her the story of his childhood and the reasons for the deep grief he feels for his late brother, but she then disappears. The next morning, he tries to find her but no-one seems to have heard of her.

Fabrissa had recounted her own story of the persecution and destruction of her village, which Watson initially assumed had taken place during the Great War. However, by this time there are enough clues to allow the reader to understand that the situation was very different from the one he believed. Watson eventually discovered the truth for himself, in the process ending a centuries-old mystery and finding the document which he wants the dealer to translate.

This story is a quick read, the 240 pages being in well-spaced large font, and (in my 2010 Orion Books paperback edition) is accompanied by author's notes plus another short story in the same setting. The Winter Ghosts encompasses grief, romance, mystery and the supernatural, wrapped up in an engaging and memorable tale.


Bill Garthright said...

Interesting, Tony.

And yeah, I read The Da Vinci Code, and I was just astonished at how poorly written it was. I thought the idea was great, but not the execution.

I really have to wonder about best-sellers, because those I've read have usually been mediocre. But yes, I know that tastes vary.

Anthony G Williams said...

Yes, I enjoyed the idea so much that I was able to tolerate the poor execution. I read it before I started this blog, but I have posted a review here of The Lost Symbol, which is typical Dan Brown. The one thing he does well is keep the pages turning through short chapters which seem always to end on a cliff-hanger to keep you reading!