Monday, January 28, 2013

Book 12: The Winter Ghosts

I try to be much more discerning about books I purchase nowadays, meaning I'll get a pile together, and sit at the cafe with some coffee, read a few pages to see if I like the writing style while also looking at ratings on Amazon or Goodreads.  I don't do it with every book, and sometimes I like the premise of the novel so I'll just decide to give it a chance without the screening process, but I figure I need to stop buying so many books that then end up in my growing to read pile (actually I have a to read pile that I really consider books I want to read soon, and then a whole other, larger stack of books that I have and will read eventually if that makes any sense).  I bought this one over a year ago, before I had started being quite so picky because it mentioned World War I in the description.  I read a lot of novels about or related to World War II, but World War I interests me as well; I just don't think it grabbed the American imagination in quite the same way and don't always see as many novels or books in general on the topic.  I just couldn't get into this novel a year ago but I think that had more to do with my mood at the time.  Due to the Keyword Challenge, I decided to give it another shot this month since it contains the keyword "winter" in the title.  I looked it up on Goodreads before I started reading only to discover that this was a ghost story!  You'd think maybe the word "ghosts" in the title, and the fact that the back description talks about people being haunted would have clued me in, but I thought they were metaphorical ghosts and that people were haunted by the past, not by actual ghosts (also I never read the quotes from magazines or other authors because just like movies, there is always going to be someone willing to say positive things about even horrible novels).  I'm glad I figured that out before I started reading this, because it definitely would have been unexpected and surprising otherwise.
Bones and shadows and dust.  I am the last.  The others have slipped away into darkness.  Around me now, at the end of my days, only an echo in the still air of the memory of those who once I loved. (p. 9)
I am having a hard time really deciding how I felt this novel.  The majority of the novel is a flashback to 1928 in the French Pyrenees area, though it opens and closes in 1933.  In 1933, Freddie enters a bookstore because he wants its owner to translate an old piece of parchment written in Occitan for him.  The rest of the novel is his explanation of how this document came into his possession.  In 1928, our 27 year old narrator is traveling through France, still grieving his brother's death which occurred 11 years before.  Freddie was too young to fight in World War I, but his brother and a majority of his unit were killed in battle in 1916.  As the second, much younger brother, Freddie never had a substantial relationship with his parents, and George's death hit him especially hard, though he was unable to get any comfort from his parents.  He is now drifting, trying to move on but also not quite wanting to let go, and unable to understand how everyone else can be looking forward, to the future.  He understands that his grief isn't unique, that just about everyone lost someone in this war, but he still feels isolated and disconnected.
Following a car accident, Freddie ends up in a small village, Nulle, off the beaten path, and is invited to the yearly festival that happens to be occurring that night.  While at the festival, he meets a woman, Fabrissa, and feels more interested in his surroundings and life than he has in a long time.  He is completely fascinated by Fabrissa, enjoys their conversation, and eventually they share their stories of loss.  The novel is very slow moving, meandering even, and the ghost story and plot are incredibly obvious and straighforward to everyone but Freddie.  The author does have a nice turn of phrase, and while the novel is 263 pages, given the amount of indentation on the pages and the font size, it really is probably only half to two thirds that long.  On the one hand, it's almost impossible to say much about the story without feeling like it's a spoiler but on the other hand it doesn't feel like a spoiler because it is obvious what is going on.  I've seen many reviews describing this as a classic ghost story, and while I get that, I prefer my ghost stories with a little bit of mystery.  I like the ones where the protagonists have to do research to determine the identity of the spirit, and then more research to find out what happened to that person.  They don't have to be scary, but as I said, I like that sense of revelation as the story progresses.  The reason I think this is labeled as a classic ghost story is because Freddie finds himself transported into a different time, witnessing events (even if he doesn't realize it), and I at least got the sense that this was a "one night of the year" kind of situation.
In medieval times, the Pyrenees served as a type of center and refuge for Cathars, members of a heresy that the Catholic Church disagreed with, and this faith group was eventually persecuted to extinction.  While Mosse alludes to the region's history, she doesn't explain much.  I thought that was fine for the novel itself, but when she discusses her inspiration for this story in the afterword, I wished she would have added a paragraphs or two about what the Cathars actually believed, what their heresy was etc.  I looked on Wikipedia and it didn't give much of an answer instead focusing on the wars and the persecution, not so much what they were being persecuted for - I gather this is partially because the Catholic Church did such a good job of rooting them out and destroying them that not too many specifics are known.  Overall, I think this novel would have worked much better as a short story - there just wasn't quite enough there to justify an entire novel (and as a matter of fact, this is actually the author expanding on a short story she had previously written).  What is there is very straightforward, though I kind of liked it.  I would also say while Freddie was a bit longwinded and needed to get to the point a bit more quickly, there are some rather well written sentences in here.  While I don't think I'd recommend this one, I am still curious about the author's other novels.  I am not sure what that means since usually if I don't like a novel or feel either very apathetic or ambivalent about it, I have no interest in anything else by that author, so I guess there must have been something here to hold my interest even if I can't quite place my fingers on it.  Then again, it may just be as simple as the fact that her other novels also address the Cathars and my interest in the subject is now picqued.

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