Kate Mosse, The Winter Ghosts

Posted by Glennis Byron on December 28, 2010 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , ,

Kate Mosse, The Winter Ghosts, Orion. 2009.

Reviewed by Glennis Byron

Kate Mosse, an author I have not encountered before, is known primarily as the  bestselling author of Labyrinth (2005) and Sepulchre (2007). The Winter Ghosts, while not part of this series, similarly explores connections between past and present with the links made between the fallen of the Somme and the heretics of the medieval past. The whole idea is all a bit suspiciously too Dan Brown for me, and I only picked the book up because I’d been promised a ghost story. I don’t think I really got one.

The narrative begins in 1933 with Freddie Watson taking a letter written in medieval Occitan into an antiquarian bookshop in Toulouse. The bookseller, amazed at the contents, sits Freddie down at the back of the shop with a thick glass tumbler of mellow, golden brandy (you may be getting the gist of the style here) and Freddie begins the story of how he came into possession of the letter: ‘Tell me, Saurat, do you believe in ghosts?’

Inconsolable following the death of his brother George in the war, Freddie has suffered a nervous breakdown and his physical health has deteriorated. Following his doctor’s suggestion about getting ‘the clean air of the mountains’, Freddie goes on holiday in the Pyrenees; a snow storm in the foot-hills results in him crashing his car, and he finds refuge in an isolated village. Here he meets the mysterious Fabrissa, and they spend the night sharing stories of loss and grief. The next morning he wakes up and, surprise, no Fabrissa, and, surprise again, no one has even heard of her.

Mosse piles the gothic tropes on thick: cemeteries, castles, ruins, towers (mysteriously locked), piercing silences (interrupted by ghostly whispers) but don’t be deceived, for all these trappings this is not really a ‘ghost’ story in any gothic sense. More than anything else, it is a study in the nature of grief. Given that I’m working on branding and the gothic at the moment, I find it interesting to see yet one more example of a book being ‘produced’ as gothic through the appropriation of certain highly visual and easily identifiable tropes, but there is really little more to it than that.

I could have forgiven this if the book had been more engagingly written but this really was a dreadful slog for me, and if I hadn’t been wanting to identify the elements of gothic branding, I’d have certainly given up. The style, to begin with, is simple to the point of tedium. It’s hard to determine what produces this effect, but I suspect it’s the shortish sentences which repeat the same few straightforward structures. There’s also the constant use of clichèd language. Freddie is ‘worn threadbare by grief’; for his breakfast he is served ‘warm white rolls and ham, with fresh butter and a coarse plum jam’; clouds hang so low he feels he can reach out and touch them, cars ‘splutter’ back into life…. This all sounds so second hand, a kind of writing by numbers, and, even worse, it is so drawn out: one suspects by this point the bookseller must have dozed off.

And then there are the illustrations. I usually love an illustrated book, and these are often lovely illustrations…but  all I could think is: what are they for? (Again, I note the attempt to make the story highly visual). When Freddie is describing his breakdown in a restaurant, he recalls how he remembers ‘how I put down my champagne flute carefully, deliberately, on the table in front of me, but after that, almost nothing’. I don’t know why this needed an illustration of a full champagne flute on a table, next to a bottle lying on its side and a cork. Do we need to be shown what a champagne flute looks like? Or am I missing something? I guess there is the larger question here of how book illustration functions. Here, to me it seems purely decorative.

Suggested further reading at the back of the book includes James’s Turn of the Screw, Waters’s The Little Stranger, the stories of M.R. James and Edith Wharton. If that’s the sort of thing you are looking for, might be wise to just stick with these from the start – or try Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, also reviewed on this site. The Winter Ghosts doesn’t really belong in their company.

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