Sepulchre, By Kate Mosse

Something nasty in the woodwork
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

For anyone who avoids fiction about blood-lines, the occult and ecclesiastical manuscripts the window for escape is closing. Even blockbusters aimed at women are no longer a conspiracy-free zone. After the commercial success of her 2005 novel Labyrinth, a "Grail-gripper" in Dan Brown mode, Mosse returns to France for a story of fin-de-siècle phantoms and buried treasure.

Sepulchre's dual narrative moves between the 1890s and the present day. The heroine of the historical section, Leonie Vernier, is a bored 17-year-old more than ready to step into her adult shoes. When she receives an invitation from a widowed aunt in the Languedoc, she eagerly accepts. She exchanges Paris for Carcassonne, and finds herself initially seduced by the bucolic delights of life at La Domaine de la Cade.

Back in the present is Meredith Martin, a chipper American academic. In France to research a biography of Debussy and her own family history, she treats herself to a short break at La Domaine, now a hotel. Despite her growing attachment to the area – and a certain ex-pat Englishman – she is spooked by a series of eerie encounters: a girl's face in a river, an apparition on the road.

Like many in the genre, the novel spawns several sub-plots of Grand Guignol-like complexity. Key to the action is a set of tarot cards with associations to nearby Rennes-les-Bains, the village at the heart of The Da Vinci Code. They are said to have the power to unleash demons, and impressionable Leonie is inspired to investigate further. As a storm gathers, she trips off to the woods to explore the chapel, home to another set of talismanic symbols.

Time slippage has always been Mosse's trademark, and it's testimony to her narrative control that Leonie and Meredith's stories complement each other rather than collide. In her role as history boffin, Meredith is able to deliver pertinent exposition without interrupting Leonie's enfolding costume drama. Mosse builds up a real sense of the thinness of the walls dividing past and present, the living and those on the other side.

Mosse, unlike fellow Francophile Joanne Harris, is not at one with the language of gothic high-camp. While the novel is steeped in atmosphere – the wind plays "cache-cache" in the trees, church bells toll – it's hard to take the more supernatural showdowns seriously. It feels like a breach of etiquette when flesh-and-blood devils leap out of the woodwork.

Mosse's gifts for historical fiction, however, are considerable. Sepulchre, like Labyrinth, is rich in regional folklore and telling domestic detail. Plundering the 19th-century's fascination with spiritualism and the esoteric, Mosse does what good popular historical novelists do best – make the past enticingly otherwordly, while also claiming it as our own.

Orion £18.99 (544pp) £17.09 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Comments