Have you forgotten yet? …
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Aftermath (March 1919) – Siegfried Sassoon
Kate Mosse’s most recent novel, The Winter Ghosts depicts a young man struggling with the aftermaths of the Great War, including coping with the loss of his elder brother who fought in it. Set a few years after the war has ended, the novel is punctuated with memories of the past interspersed with the unsettling scenes of the present, and descriptions of surrounding landscapes and feelings. There are many themes in this novel which echo Mosse’s previous novels, such as the strong French setting, and the idea of a violent and unsettling event in the past which haunts the present. With “nothing is as it seems” to set an almost melancholy tone and the sense of mystery, Mosse creates the hidden pasts and illusions.
In the style of a true, old-fashioned ghost-story, Mosse introduces an English protagonist, Freddie, who escapes to a quiet, shabby town in France to find himself, amidst coping with the death of his brother and his idealised image of him. As an outsider Freddie sees the country through different perspectives, preferring to relate to it as a form of escape, an Other place: “Here in France I was a stranger” ; it is an alien land which is – “plain, clean anonymous…We suited one another”.
Always reverberating through the story is the theme of being stuck in the past, and always feeling as if there is a ‘story within a story’. There is an overriding sense of irresolution which hangs over the Freddie, he is haunted by the effects of the war and the after-effects which come with it, he is grief-stricken over the loss of his brother George, and he is traumatised by the neglect of his parents who have placed their dead son on a pedestal. With this, comes a sense of isolation which leaves Freddie stuck in an “emotional no-man’s land”, a clever metaphor which weaves in references to the War and the effects of solitary grief. Exploring the idea of being a man, Mosse presents George, as being the ultimate male role model, and something which has been skewed by memory and powerful emotions to become a male figure that has become an unrealistic ideal which Freddie can never match up to. And accordingly, Freddie in contrast feels emasculated by what he perceives as his own weaknesses, his interests and his personality, even down to his love of books and music. Mosse questions then, what it means to be a man in an era where a man’s role is almost dictated to them, and where they must meet expectations of them, or like Freddie, crumble away in guilt and silent docility. The struggle for George to carry on without his brother (“George has been my family” ) and his inability to connect with other shows a larger struggle, that of the idea of male grief and the accepted social norms for how to deal with grief.
Soon Freddie comes across voices, fleeting figures, which is a different types of haunting, creating a figure of mystery before the readers even see anything latently supernatural. Stumbling across a traditional village which is bound in air of sadness and dogged by their own past he meets Fabrissa, a quiet yet alluring young woman whom he feels drawn to. He quickly connects to her through their shared sense of tragedy and grief, their tragic memories and their loss from their respective pasts. As Freddie wryly notes, “the dead leave shadows”, and this proves to be true in a number of ways.
Freddie epitomises being stuck in the past and the inability to move on, due to his own sense of survivor’s guilt, which is only further emphasised by his growing romance with a woman who he is unable to understand or fully reach. Thus the impossible-ness of his situation is also characterised in this romance, he is unable to move forward or change anything in the past, until he is forced to confront the past and accept the emotions that come with it.
In comparison to this is Fabrissa’s own suffering, her physical prison which correlates to Freddie’s mental one, and the fact that she is, like Freddie, surrounded by violence which has ripped apart her life. Emphasised by the beautiful, green scenic landscape,and the rich, colour-filled descriptions of their surroundings, which is as lovely as it is eerie, Fabrissa manages to create a spectral atmosphere which builds up as she reveals more secrets about her past. It is no accidental irony that as the re-enactment of the past and Fabrissa’s life begins to build up, so does the feeling of feeling alive become stronger for Freddie – and this can be interpreted in many ways, either as Freddie being distracted from his pain, or seeking emancipation through Fabrissa’s history.
There are several themes which run throughout this book, the beauty of landscape, the idea of male grief and suffering, and violent wars and the effects of it, which all work together to make a surprisingly subdued, yet effective ghost-story. Essentially, there is a love story at the heart of all this, yet it is also quite a tragic one which ultimately suggests that grief is the pervading, although educational, factor in all of this. But the real feeling you’re left with at the end of this novel is one of feeling slightly haunted, the unspoken sense of violence and the powerful sense of wanting to be alive is a lasting one, which creates an unsettling feeling which stays a while after you have finished reading.
Kate Mosse, The Winter Ghosts (Orion Books: London 2010) pp. 282 £7.99