Friday, 25 February 2011

Review: 'The Winter Ghosts' by Kate Mosse

Date finished: 17 February 2011

Rating: 3.5 stars

Format: Paperback

Source: Bought (December 2010, I think)

Genre: Ghost story/historical fiction
Published: 1 October 2009

The Synopsis

The Great War took much more than lives. It robbed a generation of friends, lovers and futures. In Freddie Watson's case, it took his beloved brother and, at times, his peace of mind. Unable to cope with his grief, Freddie has spent much of the time since in a sanatorium. In the winter of 1928, still seeking resolution, Freddie is travelling through the French Pyrenees - another region that has seen too much bloodshed over the years. During a snowstorm, his car spins off the mountain road. Shaken, he stumbles into the woods, emerging by a tiny village. There he meets Fabrissa, a beautiful local woman, also mourning a lost generation. Over the course of one night, Fabrissa and Freddie share their stories of remembrance and loss. By the time dawn breaks, he will have stumbled across a tragic mystery that goes back through the centuries. By turns thrilling, poignant and haunting, this is a story of two lives touched by war and transformed by courage.

The Review

On the face of it, this is a great ghost story - were it not sent in rural France, I would have said it had a rather gothic feel to it. A lone man roaming through the wilderness after a car crash in a blizzard, stumbles upon an eerily quiet village before finding a guest house and realising that everything is not as it seems...Had it been nothing more, it would be great. As it happens, it was even better!

At less than 250 pages, I expected either a quick-fire story or a character study. I was pleasantly surprised by this novel actually managing, for the most part, to provide both! The story, as I said, has a very quaint feel about it - rural France has the most idyllic villages and Mosse's descriptions are perfect! Every smudge of dust, every dagger of ice and every whiff of liquer is captured with just the right amount of detail. There isn't anything complicated about the way that Mosse writes - she just seems to know how every moment should be described without grandeur or pretence.

And yet every reader knows that even the best descriptions won't carry a story by themselves. The characters and themes, fortunately, live up to the setting. The story is set in both 1928 and 1933 and is told from the perspective of Freddie. Freddie is a touchingly vulnerable Englishman struggling to cope with life after World War I and the death of his older brother, an Englishman like many others of the time trying to bear the unbearable. He is, perhaps, a victim of his own 'English-ness'. One thing I think we're still stereotyped for (although I can't be sure) is our repressed emotions. Freddie is never allowed to show his grief but is supposed to just bury it and live on. Like the novel says:

"He walked like a man recently returned to the world. Every step was careful, deliberate. Every step to be relished....

But nothing is as it seems.

For every step was a little too careful, a little too deliberate, as if he were unwilling to take even the ground beneath his feet for granted"

So even as a ghost story, this book isn't all that it seems. Because underneath the mystery, the snow and the voices on the wind is a man who so desperately needs someone to prove to him that he's worthy of love, worthy of anything, that he doggedly pursues shadows 700 years old...and therein lies the story!

And there isn't really much more to say - just that you should read it before the Spring comes and the snow passes on and takes away the perfect atmosphere for reading this book.