Book Review: The Winter Ghosts [by Kate Mosse]

You know sometimes you pick up a book because the dustjacket reads like it might be good, and you’re pretty sure that it’s going to be a dud, but you buy it anyway? I seem to have fallen for that again.

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The Winter Ghosts is a short novel, some 250 pages (with a connected chapter thrown in at the end), with most of the action set in the French Pyrenees. Following World War I, the protagonist, Freddie Watson leaves England for France primarily for his health, after his brother George was lost in combat.  While traversing the cold, rocky roads in the Pyrenees, Freddie faces a couple of setbacks and has to stop at the nearest village of Nulle. There, he meets an unusually beautiful (never seen that before) girl called Fabrissa, and it’s something like love at first sight (ugh). But there’s a whole lot he doesn’t know (he’s not the brightest crayon in the box).
One of the primary themes in the novel is Freddie’s inability to come to terms with his grief. I haven’t read Labyrinth yet – or anything else by Mosse. I do hope to read more, but I can’t say this book impressed me at all.

While it has an interesting premise, Mosse fails to do much with the plot. If you read the summary and the first few pages, you may have put most of the facts together already. It’s supposed to be a ‘ghost story’ of sorts, but kids’ ghost stories probably pack in more suspense.

There are times when you wonder how dense the author thinks her audience is. And Freddie’s pretty dense too. Fortunately the torturous process of him scratching his head and wondering what the big mystery is (when it’s ridiculously obvious) resolves itself in a short time. Thank god the novel isn’t long, I don’t think I could stand it. Mosse wrote herself into a corner: she wanted a mystery, she based the novel on a big secret, but it’s a pretty open secret, since I’m guessing anyone who’s reading the book picks up on it fast. Not only is this kind of ghost story overdone, she practically throws a marching band in there with the closet skeletons. The reader is given so many ‘hints’; it’s like she wants to compound the weakness of the mystery plot.
Mosse makes use of real historical events here, and that’s fine, I take no issue with that. But instead of making such an effort to disguise the events, why not remove the mystery aspect of it, and focus on something else? Emotional journeys, personality development, human response to sorrow and change…when you deal with the complexity of a postwar novel, there’s a lot to work with. Instead, the thing that stood front and centre was an ineffective mystery. I feel like this novel would’ve worked so much better if she’d let go of the ‘ghost story’, and then worked through the human response. Grief in general is, to give her some credit, a big part of the novel, but she wasted too many words on the mystery.

She knew I had ventured too close to the grave and had been tainted by it. Death had slipped into my bones.

Mosse’s writing is average, overall. It’s simple, for the most part, occasionally poetic, and mostly uncomplicated. Character interactions and dialogues are sometimes a little weird and stiff, and she tells more than she shows. I didn’t mind her prose, but no way is it enough to redeem this novel. She also had the characters speak French more than occasionally and didn’t provide translations, so I had to consult Google Translate a fair bit. I didn’t mind, but I found it weird that she wasn’t sticking to one language; the dialogues went back and forth with English and French and it was sort of jarring. The edition I had was accompanied by black and white pictures, mostly of snowy landscapes. I liked them mostly, but I thought some were unnecessary and badly placed. Well, at least it added one interesting dimension to the novel.

In her Author’s Note and her note on the novel specifically, Mosse explains the historical context further and also stresses on the themes. She does conveys her themes with some degree of competency. She wanted to portray grief, specifically the often overlooked issue of male grief and sentiment – this she does. If it’s not with a resounding success, it’s a running theme in the novel. She also wanted to analyse landscape as a keeper of memory, and it’s true that another thing that’s decently done is her description of the wintry French landscape. Again, I think she could’ve improved the latter if she’d invested less in the mystery.

If I’ve taken away anything from this novel, it’s greater knowledge of certain events in French history – I plan to look up the books Mosse consulted that she mentioned in her Author’s Note. This book was just a few notches below mediocre for me. If you want gloomy with a winter backdrop just go read some Chekhov. At least all the killing’s finished up in-scene and you won’t feel like you’ve got to strangle the protagonist yourself.

All quotes attributed to the respective work.

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