Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Book review: The Winter Ghosts

By Kate Mosse
Published by
Orion Books

Expanding an idea that she previously explored in The Cave - a novella that was part of the 2009 Quick Reads initiative - Kate Mosse has created an evocative ghost story that I just could not get enough of.

In 1933, Freddie Watson travels to Toulouse in search of Monsieur Saurat, a known translator of Occitan, an old Romance language. Presented with an antique parchment written in this ancient tongue, the French librarian enquiries about its origins. And so the tale begins…

It’s 1928 and Freddie, still unable to cope with the loss of his beloved brother during the Great War, has been recommended a change of scenery by his doctors. He sets off to the South of France and, while travelling through the Pyrenees, he gets caught up in a snowstorm and loses control of his car. Surviving the crash, he walks in the woods until he arrives in an eerily quiet village where he takes refuge at the pension run by Madame Galy and her surly husband. Despite being tired, Freddie accepts the woman’s invitation and decides that he will join her later in town to celebrate the fête de Saint-Etienne. By this time, he has forgotten all about the female voice that seemed to be whispering in his ears while he was driving through the mountains. On his way to the village hall, Freddie gets lost in the maze of narrow streets but, in the end, he is welcomed by the villagers and starts talking with Fabrissa, a fascinating young woman who, to his surprise, seems to know everything about him and understands him like no-one before. Her voice… has he heard it before?

Freddie is extremely touched by the encounter with this mysterious woman who nobody seems to know. Her voice, whose memory he clings to, is the only certainty amid the feverish delirium that follows the night of the party. She had told him her story – the story of her people – and had asked him to find her. He intends to honour his promise, even if it means risking his own life. Only by bringing to light the truth, will he be able to come to terms with his own loss.

The Winter Ghosts is not a ghost story of the “scary, can’t bear to put the lights out” kind. The wintery landscape of the French Pyrenees is an important presence and the perfect setting for the inexplicable events that Freddie experiences. The words have been so carefully chosen that it’s almost as if you can feel the snow underfoot and the cold air touching your face. It’s as if you can distinctly hear the crystal-clear voice carried by the wind.

I would have certainly loved for the main characters, as well as some of the minor ones, to be further developed but I believe that the delicate structure of this novel would have suffered under the weight of details. As it is, it is a perfectly formed story, as light as the snowflakes that decorate the pretty cover of its paperback edition.

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