The Winter Ghosts is a hauntingly beautiful story of grief, loss, and healing by Kate Mosse, author of Labyrinth. Unlike Labyrinth and Mosse’s other epic novels, The Winter Ghosts is relatively short, but it packs an emotional punch. In 1928, ten years after the end of World War I, a young Englishman named Freddie Watson is still mourning the death of his brother George, who was killed in the war. Freddie has never been able to put his emotions to rest after the loss of his brother, who was the only person he had truly loved. His parents have been emotionally distant from him, and they always preferred George. Freddie’s depression leads to a nervous breakdown, and he spends time in a sanatorium. After being released from the sanatorium, Freddie travels in the French Pyrenees, hoping to heal his emotional wounds.
Freddie’s car skids off the road during a blizzard, and he comes across a remote village, which seems deserted. It turns out that the villagers are preparing for a festival. Freddie finds a room at an inn, where the landlady invites him to the festival. At first he does not want to go, but he does, and he finds himself in a room surrounded by people in medieval costumes. There he meets a young woman named Fabrissa, who has also lost a brother, and is immediately attracted to her. He tells her his whole story, about George’s death and his own grief. Then a fight breaks out in the room, and Freddie and Fabrissa escape through a hidden passageway. In a beautiful spot overlooking the village, Fabrissa tells Freddie a story of the Cathars, a Christian sect from the 13th and 14th centuries, who were considered heretical by the Catholic Church and massacred by Crusaders and Inquisitors. Readers of Labyrinth will be familiar with their story. The village had been one of the last holdouts of the Cathars, and the Crusaders trapped the survivors in a cave. But there is more to Fabrissa’s story, which I will not reveal here. I will only say that what happens is open to interpretation. Is it time travel, a ghost story, or even Freddie’s imaginings? All of these are possibilities.
Mosse uses an interesting framing device in this novel. It begins and ends in 1933, five years after the main part of the story, with Freddie in a bookstore in Toulouse, showing a bookseller a manuscript in a language he cannot read. The significance of the manuscript becomes clear in the main part of the novel. The chapters at the beginning and the end are told in third person, while most of the novel is told in Freddie’s first person narrative. Mosse makes you wonder what is in the manuscript, and what has happened to Freddie, in the five years in between.
The Winter Ghosts includes exquisitely beautiful descriptions of the French Pyrenees, which contrast with the horrific events that take place, both in World War I and in Fabrissa’s story of the Cathars. It is a powerful story of the emotional wounds caused by war. The mystery of who the people in the village really are, and of what happened at the festival, where Freddie’s account of events is totally different from that of his landlady and the others, is suspenseful and compelling. The Winter Ghosts is a novel that will linger in your mind long after you finish reading it.
The Winter Ghosts is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.