Kate Mosse writes time slip novels set in the Languedoc region of France. The Winter Ghosts is a recreation of the medieval Cathar persecution in which whole villages, entire regions, were wiped out by zealots from the Catholic Church. The Cathars were regarded by the papists as dangerous and damned heretics and hunted to extinction. When villagers hid in the caves in the area, soldiers walled up the entrances to the caves, burying hundreds of people alive.
Such an incident, imagined in a fictional hamlet, is at the center of The Winter Ghosts. Freddie has lost his beloved brother George in the mud and destruction of World War I. He can’t come to terms with the death—he has never had a place in his family and the only affection in his life came from George. After years of emotional breakdowns, recovery in institutions, and the eventual death of his cold and distant parents, Freddie sets out to restore some vigor with a trip through France and the Pyrenees, dragging his disquiet and misery with him.
But a sudden storm in a mountain pass sends his car into boulders and nearly over the edge of an abyss. He stumbles, injured, to a shadowy village at the foot of the mountain, hearing a mysterious woman’s voice entreating him along the way. The village seems overwhelmed by some kind of despair or darkness and Freddie’s experiences there are puzzling and alarming. A local festival turns up an entrancing girl who seems to know him and understand his troubled heart. An altercation forces them to flee through a hidden passage to safety. But the girl disappears. A raging fever nearly kills Freddie and no one remembers seeing him at the fête—nor does anyone know the people he spoke to and ate with there.
The journey back up the mountain to rescue the damaged car reveals secrets about the terrain that send Freddie off exploring, in search of the mystical Fabrissa who has captured his imagination and his heart with her baffling stories. What Freddie finds and how it threatens to consume him solves the mystery and reveals an ancient massacre and its restless dead.
Mosse can write a compelling story. I loved her popular time slip novel Labyrinth, slightly less so the next book, Sepulchre. But The Winter Ghosts, while less ambitious than those two books, luxuriates in the turbulent history of the 13th century, stitching it closely to the tragedy of the war-riven 20th. Loss is portrayed beautifully in this novel, as is redemption. A fragment of a message from the past says: “We are who we are because of those we choose to love and because of those who love us,” an epitaph for those long-dead and a consolation for the living.
The Winter Ghosts Kate Mosse | G. P. Putnam’s Sons 2009