by Kate Mosse
‘Enfin. At last. Meredith heard the word as if she’d spoken herself. It was so sharp, so loud, that she turned around, thinking that perhaps a person had come in behind her. There was no one there. Things shifting between past and present.‘
I first read this novel several years ago and have no reason to change anything I wrote about it then. If anything, Sepulchre was better on the second reading. Although I remembered the plot fairly well and knew what was coming, I still found it tense and suspenseful.
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.
‘Leonie could discern music, inside her head, coming from somewhere within her. Heard, but not heard. Then a presence, behind her, surrounding her, skimming past without ever touching, yet pressing closer, a ceaseless movement, accompanied by a silent cacophony of whispering and sighing and weeping.’
Brother and sister are shaken by their different experiences that evening, 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.
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.
‘The man crossed himself mechanically and leant forward to close his master’s wide, horrified eyes. Then his hand stopped as he noticed the rectangular card lying across [his] chest, over his heart. Le Diable.‘
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.
‘The sight of the flames seemed to inflame the passions of the villagers. The first window was broken, the glass shattering at the end of a steel-capped boot…. Three others picked up a stone urn and used it as a battering ram on the door. Glass and metal buckled and shattered as the frame gave way. The trio dropped the urn and the mob flooded into the hall and the library. With rags soaked in oil and tar, they set fire to the mahogany shelves…..’
Kate Mosse fuses history and modernity with skill 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.
Sepulchre is the second work of Kate Mosse’s Languedoc Trilogy, the blurb tells us. Some editions reveal that two of its minor characters have already appeared in Labyrinth, the first book in the series. Whilst readers of both may see this fact as significant, I see no reason why it should matter. I took Sepulchre at face value and it satisfied me perfectly as a standalone novel. It is a book that can be read two or three times: as historical fiction, ghost story and riveting thriller.
Having now read all three novels in the trilogy, Sepulchre is the one which stands out for me as the best and most satisfying. I would be interested to hear other readers’ opinions.