Ghosts in the Midi

Sepulchre

by Kate Mosse

The first time I read this novel, I learned it was the second book of the author’s Languedoc Trilogy. Two of its minor characters, I was informed, had appeared in the first novel, Labyrinth. As I hadn’t read the latter, I put the information into storage. It didn’t seem especially relevant.

Now that I have read Labyrinth (more than once) and gone back to Sepulchre after a lapse of a few years, I haven’t changed my opinion. The connection is easily ignored and Sepulchre is an excellent standlone in its own right. It is a book that can be read two or three times: as historical fiction, ghost story and riveting thriller.

sepulchre

The fates of two women, their lives separated by a century of history, are connected to a mysterious ruined tomb in the Languedoc.

The novel begins in Paris where, on 16th September 1891, at the Opera, anti-German elements of the audience stage a riot at a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin. At the theatre that evening is teenager Leonie Vernier, near neighbour of the composer Claude Debussy. She is expecting her brother Anatole to meet her, but he hasn’t turned up. In fact, on the way to the theatre, he has been attacked by two thugs in the pay of Victor Constant, a powerful and corrupt nobleman who is his bitter enemy.

Brother and sister are shaken by their different experiences and when a letter arrives inviting them to visit an aunt in the south of France, they accept. Isolde is the widow of Jules Lascombe, half-brother of Leonie’s mother Marguerite. He has recently died and Isolde has inherited his country estate, Domaine de la Cade, near the town of Rennes-des-Bains. The Languedoc, part of France yet never completely French, has endured a turbulent and violent history, and is awash with legends (as most readers will know) that other writers have used to create mystery and suspense, as well as what some critics claim is alternate history.

At first, Leonie does not want to go to Domaine de la Cade but Anatole, who has his own motives for escaping Paris, persuades her to accompany him. He takes elaborate precautions against being followed.

Mystery, suspense and violence are no less features of Sepulchre than of the work of Dan Brown. Kate Mosse is the better writer. Wandering in the gloomy woods of the estate, Leonie discovers the sepulchre and is haunted by its symmetry, its air of foreboding and its apparent occult connection with an historic pack of Tarot cards. Drawn too deeply into this secret world, she unwittingly sets in motion events that threaten the Domaine and the people she loves.

In pursuit of the young siblings, Victor Constant will stop at nothing, including torture and murder, to avenge himself on Anatole for seducing the woman he loved. As he and his vicious henchmen move in for the kill, Leonie realises it is only by a sacrifice and the releasing of dark forces that she can stop him.

More than a hundred years later, Meredith Martin, an American writer, is also bound for Domaine de la Cade, now a country hotel. Her objectives are twofold, to research material for a biography of Debussy and to follow up a family puzzle, the identity of a French soldier from 1914 whose photograph she carries in her purse.

Pursued by crazy dreams and by ghosts of the past, Meredith too finds the tomb, now a ruin, and unearths Leonie’s pack of cards. Then, helped by Hal Lawrence, part owner of the Domaine, she sets about uncovering the truth behind the century-old mystery of the house and its former tenants.

Kate Mosse fuses history and modernity with real brilliance and the two parts of the story fit together neatly. The background to events in 1891 Paris is authentic while her descriptive prose, especially of places and events in the Midi, has a gothic feel without being outrageous. She devotes a great deal of space to the development of Tarot, not everyone’s cup of tea perhaps. However, readers, whether believers or not, should pay attention. Much of the plot of Sepulchre hinges round just that.

The fantastical in the tale is subdued. The coincidences that connect Leonie and Meredith are improbable without being impossible. Though it seems clear that the author wishes us to believe in her ghosts, the sceptic may hesitate. It is easy to find rational explanation for the supernatural elements of the story in the personalities and subconscious of the two main protagonists.

The references to Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code may be mischievous but are not judgemental of their writers. However, Mosse does play up the religious controversy of such works by introducing as a minor character the real life Father Saunière, enigmatic priest of Rennes-le-Chateau. Devotees of Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln (or of Dan Brown) will recognise the name.

Labyrinth is a fine novel; I enjoyed the fantasy element. However, I think Sepulchre is the better of the two.

***

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