Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Winter Ghosts

A part of my rather odd day job is reviewing audio books. One of the latest releases I managed to listen to over the weekend was The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse. The unabridged reading is by Julian Rhind-Tutt, the floppy-haired one from Green Wing. It runs to 5 CDs and makes for quite an absorbing listen.

This is my first encounter with Ms Mosse, but I'm informed that all of her books so far focus on France and its medieval history. The 'official' time period of the narrative, however, is between the two great wars of the last century.

Freddie Watson's life stalled when his beloved older brother George died on the Somme in 1916. Freddie suffered a nervous breakdown, began to see George's 'ghost', and found himself unable to work or indeed do anything much. (He is one of those privately wealthy individuals who don't have to work - a standard 'between the wars' protagonist, in fact.)

The first chapter of TWG is a neat exercise in foreshadowing. Freddie visits a French antiquarian bookseller whose shop window - along with various classics - also have volumes of ghost stories by M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood and J. Sheridan Le Fanu. I'm not sure exactly where the latter fits in - possibly in the account of small-town life in a remote village, and especially the quaint inn. But James and Blackwood are the tutelary spirits of this novel. I wonder how many of Mosse's readers have even heard of them, though?

If you recall James' account of St Bertrand de Comminges in 'Canon Alberic's Scrap-book' you will know the setting - a fairly obscure corner of France, in the shadow of the Pyrenees. If you've read Blackwood's 'Ancient Sorceries' you will know what is going on almost as soon as the main plot gets under way. The latter really provides Mosse with her plot, as Freddie Watson is essentially Arthur Vezin with a twist. Vezin, you may recall, had an ancestral tie to those ancient sorceries. Freddie has no blood connection, but instead contacts the winter ghosts of the title through a shared sense of abandonment  Loneliness calls to loneliness. In this case, Fabrissa -a beautiful young woman - calls to Freddie, taking him by the hand and leading him into a world of terror, persecution and flight.

I'm not quite sure if the novel fits together, well-written though it is. It seems Mosse often uses a 'time-twisting' approach that, presumably, her readers are familiar with. But I'm not at all sure if the general reader is supposed to 'get' the ghost story aspect early on, or be surprised what is essentially a series of non-twists. But never mind, there's much to enjoy here. The winter landscape is beautifully evoked and Freddie - who could have been very wearying company in the wrong hands - is a likeable character. And the novel's climactic scenes are powerful, if rather long delayed.

For all that it's enjoyable for most of its length, TWG proves yet again how hard it is to write a ghost novel. The very term sits awkwardly on the page (or screen) and I think it's clunky for a reason. A good ghost story is naturally brief and focuses on one incident involving a small number of people. TWG sprawls more than a bit and at times you feel you are getting research notes thrown at you as ballast, fascinating though the research may have been. But, as the nights draw in and frosty mornings become commonplace, this might just be the right book to curl up with for a week or so.

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