The Winter Ghosts, By Kate Mosse

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The Independent Culture

Kate Mosse is no stranger to the pleasures of the supernatural. Her previous novel, Sepulchre, featured tarot cards and devil worship, while Labyrinth, her international bestseller, rivalled Dan Brown in the Grail-gripper stakes. This novel, a ghost story of the old school, is an altogether cooler affair.

Freddie Watson, the narrator, is perfect ghost-story material. A quiet, studious sort, he has never got over the death of his older brother, George, in the Great War. In 1928 he decides to take a holiday in southern France, but while motoring through the snowy foothills of the Pyrenees his car spins off the road and he's forced to take refuge in a nearby village.

Nulle, like so many of Mosse's well-drawn French towns, is a forlorn place of shabby cafés and empty squares. Taken in by a kindly landlady, Freddie plans an early night. Instead he finds himself accepting an invitation to attend the traditional winter fête. Among the revellers is Fabrissa – a young woman to whom Freddie feels drawn to confide his sorry history of grief and loss. Fabrissa, in turn, has a tragedy of her own to share.

As in previous novels, Mosse flits between the centuries, knitting together a compelling historical yarn with a more modern one. The walls between past and present are thin, and it's clear that our hero has travelled further than he intended. Even Freddie can't fail to notice that his new friends are sporting historical dress and humming plainsong. It won't spoil the story to learn that Fabrissa's secret history turns out to involve Cathar persecution.

The Winter Ghosts, which began life as a novella for the Quick Reads campaign to encourage adult literacy, sees Mosse engaged in a more succinct mode of storytelling. This works particularly well in the opening chapters, when the taut narrative suggests unspecified depths. It's only when Mosse's interest in spirits, rather than spirituality, takes the upper hand that the link between the fallen of the Somme and long-ago heretics starts to feel a little far-fetched.