As a long-standing fan of Kate Mosse’s novels, I was delighted to spy The Winter Ghosts in a bookshop. If you’re at all familiar with Mosse’s previous work – Labyrinth and Sepulchre, you’ll recognise the setting and themes almost instantly.
The Winter Ghosts follows Frederick Watson, a young man burdened by grief at the death of his brother during the Great War. After a breakdown, he takes some time to explore the Languedoc region of France. But while travelling, he crashes his car and is forced to stay the night in a remote village.
Perhaps more blatantly than in Mosse’s previous books, the lines between past and present become blurred on the evening of the festival of St Etienne. He meets a girl called Fabrissa and the two of them escape a nasty battle via a secret underground tunnel.
The two of them talk for hours about their losses and Fabrissa disappears as Freddie becomes delirious. He eventually wakes up in his rented room in the village of Nulle, still unable to sort fact from fiction. His landlady is concerned when his recollection of the previous evening’s events differs wildly from hers.
The theme here will be instantly familiar to Mosse fans – Fabrissa is a restless soul from the time when that region was subject to the persecution of the Cathars. She’s reaching out to Freddie to have the story of her and her fellow villagers resolved. I’ll leave the details out so as not to spoil the story.
The Winter Ghosts happens to be an adaptation of a shorter story that Mosse wrote. It’s still much shorter than her other full-length novels, but it never feels rushed. The pacing of the story is steady, and the author does a wonderful job of evoking a sepia-tinted era through the eyes of a melancholy young man.
As always, Mosse’s affection for this region of France continues to lead her back to the Cathars and some of the attrocities that were committed against them. But somehow even among the horror of Freddie’s discovery in the caves, you become aware that the shock of such things lessens the further away in history it was – imagine the actions of the Nazi’s seen about 300 years in the future.
Within a much shorter novel, the character of Freddie is fairly well-developed. I was particularly impressed at the contrast in his feelings for his brother and his parents. It’s not until fairly late in the story until we discover his parents had both died recently, but it’s clear his depth of feeling for them does not match the devastating loss of his brother. It’s a subtle, compelling statement on the nature of grief and the extent to which it affects the individual.
Not remotely ‘frightening’ in the slightest, The Winter Ghosts is a sensitively-written story which is led by Mosse’s epoch-jumping supernatural plot devices. She uses this to explore some very sombre themes about life and bereavement. Having just gone through a bereavement this year myself, this book is gentle in its treatment of the subject, but gives plenty to think about, often reframing the way one looks at death.