Grief, Haunting Histories and Romance in the Snow

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

In which February is a cruel God, and a place where flight is banned

“February, when the days of winter seem endless and no amount of wistful recollecting can bring back any air of summer.”
– Shirley Jackson, Raising Demons

Light Boxes by Shane Jones is a little-known novel which gained cult success due to word-of-mouth reviews. This short read depicts an unnamed town in which is being persecuted by the obscure character February, in which the winter weather and strange measure of “sad feelings quotas” rising have reigned for more than three hundred days. Children are beginning to be taken from their beds, and fear keeps the townspeople frozen in a place where all forms of flight are banned and parchments are used as tools. It is here that we are dropped into the story, feeling as if the narrative had already begun before we started the novel, in a mix of memories, narratives, dreams and thought-processes all weaving and cluttering their way along. With the seemingly nuclear family of Thaddeus, Saleh and their beloved daughter Bianca leading the tale, the readers are given the impression consistently through that the story is being unravelled piece at a time, shown from various characters’ perspectives and scenes. Drenched in visual imagery, and metaphors, this is a hauntingly enigmatic modern fairy tale in which nothing is as it seems.

Thus the story moves forward with the idea forming of War against the phantom figure of February, involving thinking of “holding hands with August”, the sun on their faces and wearing clothes meant for the warmer climates, suggesting that the strongest weapon here is the power of thought and symbolism. As befits the tone and style of the narrative, this novel deals in the currency of symbolism and often the unspoken. There are often disquieting events and features: the kidnapped children who hide in their underground world as a silent population, passing their War Effort plans of strategy though the floorboards to the town’s population; the parchments with February’s decrees pinned to trees; the continuous references to hot air balloons. This is further heighted by the layout of the book which follows its own emotion, perhaps best shown in the scene when Bianca is taken from her bed – there is no suggestion as to what has happened to her, but rather the powerful but very quiet emotions of Thaddeus and the detached reactions of the town.

February himself appears to be the months of winter personified as a shadowy creator figure, who controls the town with his parchments and words, attacking the townspeople for reasons which remain unknown to the readers and perhaps even the townspeople. He is eventually revealed as a cowardly figure, wracked with guilt and aware of his ruthless attacks, and yet unable and to some extent even unwilling to change his course. He epitomises the idea of defeatism, showing how he chooses to accept his role as a villain instead of changing the course of his actions. His character is perhaps the biggest, and most apparent metaphor, what comes most obviously to mind is the idea of a writer suffering from depression and perhaps even some form of writer’s block, who chooses to take his frustrations out on his own creations (in this case, the town). Being shown as a man with internal conflicts (“his beard scraggly, his pants torn…He cries a lot too. Sometimes he just sits at his desk staring at the blank sheets of paper”), February appears almost like a bully, unable to face up to his own fears, instead inflicting difficulties on his own creations, preferring to act as a God-like creator who refuses to take positive responsibility, and enjoying his immense power.
It is also apt then, that the character of the “girl who smelled of smoke and honey” also has her own influence on the course of the tale, as of course it is she who is shown as having a subtle hand in both the town’s fate as well as influencing her (later revealed) husband, February. Less is focused on her role as a woman and a wife (although there are references to her disappointment in February, as well as her unspoken feminine touch), but rather the scrutiny is on, like February, her title, and how much she plays up to this.

Parrallel to February’s anti hero status is reluctant hero Thaddeus, who shows many layers to his private thoughts and feelings. Pushed towards a growing war and fuelled by his love for his wife and his strong bond with his missing daughter, Thaddeus depicts an unusual leadership and, like many of the other characters, his own quirkly inventiveness and imagery (“My body a kite you can throw in the air”), as well as his own struggles which reflects February’s own mindset. However, Thaddeus also shows that he is not exempt from becoming paralysed by the attacks from February, showing how he too is consumed by his feelings and grief, and like many of his fellow townspeople, he still has very human weaknesses and fears.

There are brutal scenes throughout the novel, with random acts of killings which both reader and author remain detached from, the deaths occur suddenly and are not mourned: perhaps showing the void of emotions and engagement, reflecting also February’s refusal to relate to the town, and also perhaps the author’s own refusal to get too emotionally involved with the characters. Even the characters themselves appear part-hidden from us, the reader’s are left to make their own interpretations and impressions of what is right and what is not. The town’s rebellious group, former pilots who call themselves The Solution appear to be a false answer to this theme of lack, suggesting perhaps that they are willing to go to War due to February’s injustice and yet not confront their own cruelty and weakness – it is no accidental irony that while they appear to direct the rebellion, Thaddeus is chosen by all as the leader of the War.

Light Boxes may not appeal to everyone, perhaps because of its sinister play on words and its bizarre, almost morbid content. There is a consistent grim tone throughout which the author rarely attempts to lighten apart from the odd sentence (“Grizzle bears were seen buttoning their deer-skinned coats in case of freezing temperatures”), and yet this only appears to add a further sense of strangeness and unreality to the novel, giving a twisted fairy-tale slant to it which only makes the reader feel more further removed. Love does appear in the novel between the main characters, but it is not shown as the central theme to the novel. If anything, it is made clear that sadness and oppression appear to dominate in this novel, perhaps to reflect how we all have a darker side which can take over. It could be argued that it is this sadness and fear which has to be battled and overcome in order to find peace within ourselves. Certainly we see this strange sadness dominate in this novel, and yet there is also a strange musicality to the story with its own way of brightening up the tale. For example, rather than making death scenes gruesome and disturbing, they are giving a more peaceful yet sad quality with the presence of animals nearby, while owls look on. Similarly, there is a constant reference to flight: kites, balloons, birds are painted and secretly inserted everywhere throughout the book, and light boxes are used to make people feel happy. These splashes of joy act almost as colour indicators to show how, while these are not shown at the forefront, they are also used as tools. It is this which brings a whole to meaning to the saying “the pen is mightier than the sword” and this is what makes this book so likeable, there is a genuine sense of beauty and feeling given life through sharp and beguiling visual descriptions which gives it character, for all its sadness and quirky subtlety.

Light Boxes, Shane Jones (Hamish Hamilton: 2009 Great Britain) pp.169 £9.99