Love and war in the Langue­doc

Kate Mosse’s his­tor­i­cal novel, set amid re­li­gious con­flict in France, is am­bi­tious and skil­ful, writes Stephanie Mer­ritt

The Observer - The New Review - - Books -

The Burn­ing Cham­bers Kate Mosse

Man­tle, £20, pp608

Kate Mosse’s mul­ti­mil­lion-sell­ing 2005 novel Labyrinth rein­vented her as a nov­el­ist, and rein­vig­o­rated the his­tor­i­cal ad­ven­ture genre by putting women’s sto­ries firmly at its heart. After the two sub­se­quent novels, Sepul­chre and Ci­tadel, that com­pleted her Langue­doc tril­ogy, and a brief di­ver­sion into gothic fic­tion, Mosse has re­turned to the geo­graph­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal ter­rain of Labyrinth and the epic form that suits her sto­ry­telling so well.

The Burn­ing Cham­bers is the first in a planned se­ries chart­ing the Huguenot di­as­pora from the wars of re­li­gion in 16th-cen­tury France to 19th-cen­tury South Africa, and here a pro­logue set in a Fran­schhoek grave­yard in 1862 hints at the sweep of the story to come. But this vol­ume is rooted 300 years ear­lier in the Langue­doc, in the city of Car­cas­sonne that Mosse brought so vividly to life in her ear­lier books, and in Toulouse, where in 1562 the ten­sions be­tween Catholics and Protes­tants spilled into vi­o­lence that fu­elled 35 years of civil war.

In this febrile at­mos­phere Mosse brings to­gether her star-crossed lovers: 19-year-old Mi­nou Jou­bert, daugh­ter of a Catholic book­seller, and Dutch-born Piet Rey­don, a Huguenot con­vert and leader of the un­der­ground move­ment en­gaged in rais­ing funds and weapons for the Prince of Condé and his Protes­tant army. If that wasn’t enough to com­pli­cate their re­la­tion­ship, both Mi­nou and Piet guard their own se­crets. She has re­ceived an anony­mous let­ter bear­ing an un­known crest and the cryp­tic mes­sage: “She knows that you live.” Piet has been part of a plot to steal a priceless relic, the shroud of An­ti­och, but has de­ceived his com­rades by pass­ing off a replica and hid­ing the real shroud. One of Piet’s close as­so­ciates is found mur­dered, shortly after a visit to Mi­nou’s fa­ther, Bernard, with whom he was once held in an In­qui­si­tional prison. Mean­while, the nar­ra­tive is in­ter­cut with mys­te­ri­ous ex­tracts from the di­ary of a woman whose iden­tity the reader be­gins to piece to­gether from scat­tered clues, and who ap­pears bent on vengeance. The ob­ject of her wrath, the rea­son for it, and its re­la­tion to the main nar­ra­tive are re­vealed only grad­u­ally, and as this takes shape, Mosse’s skill at mar­shalling the mul­ti­ple strands of her story be­comes ev­i­dent. The re­frain “old se­crets cast long shad­ows” echoes through the many lay­ers of de­cep­tion and dis­cov­ery.

The Burn­ing Cham­bers is vastly am­bi­tious and in the early chap­ters the reader may feel daz­zled by the sheer num­ber of char­ac­ters and view­points, but Mosse has an in­stinc­tive feel for nar­ra­tive mo­men­tum and the pace rarely fal­ters as she moves be­tween the in­ti­mate, do­mes­tic world, and the jostling for po­lit­i­cal power that shapes the lives of or­di­nary men and women. From the un­pro­voked mas­sacre of a Huguenot con­gre­ga­tion at Vassy that ig­nites the con­flict, to the blood­shed in Toulouse, Mosse weaves his­tor­i­cal events and fig­ures seam­lessly with her own char­ac­ters, and wears her con­sid­er­able re­search lightly, though read­ers un­fa­mil­iar with the pe­riod may be grate­ful for the au­thor’s ex­plana­tory note.

The po­lit­i­cal back­ground to the wars of re­li­gion is enor­mously com­plex, and Mosse is care­ful not to sim­plify it to Protes­tants good, Catholics bad; there is treach­ery and hon­our on both sides, and the fight is not for the as­cen­dancy of one side or the other, but for a higher prize: “Tol­er­ance and dig­nity and free­dom: Piet was ready to lay down his life to de­fend th­ese prin­ci­ples. He was en­gaged in a bat­tle for the very soul of France, a bat­tle that would de­fine how men could live and be free.” Mosse does not labour the par­al­lels with the present, but they are all too clearly ev­i­dent.

Above all, though, The Burn­ing Cham­bers is a tour de force, a com­pelling ad­ven­ture that views the past with in­sight, com­pas­sion and hu­mour, and re­minds us of the va­ri­ety of women’s voices so of­ten for­got­ten in the of­fi­cial ac­counts.

To or­der The Burn­ing Cham­bers for £13.99 go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846

Mosse ‘wears her con­sid­er­able re­search lightly’. Pho­to­graph by Murdo MacLeod

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