Citadel, by Kate Mosse

Citadel is the final volume in Kate
Mosse’s Languedoc series of novels, which all take place in Southern France,
albeit at different points in history. 
Citadel begins as France has
just lost to Germany in 1942 and has begun to be occupied by the Nazis.  Although Carcassonne and the Pyrenees
region is in the non-occupied zone at first, the city and surrounding countryside
are feeling the strain of rationing, as well as the force of French laws coming
down which support the Nazis.

 Mosse
always chooses captivating topics around which to build her historical fiction,
and Citadel does not disappoint in
that regard.  She has built her
narrative around a young woman who is relatively ignorant of the degree to
which the French government in Paris has capitulated to Nazi forces, and what
it has cost the resistance movement in Carcassonne to push against that.  As Sandrine moves through the story and
becomes involved in the movement, the reader learns with her, but also has the
sobering perspective of knowing what detention means, for example, for Jewish
citizens in France, and what the creeping influence of Nazi occupation
eventually leads to for all of Europe.

 Mosse
is at her strongest when writing dialog. 
Her characters interact fluidly with one another and much of the tension
is built when characters speak to each other.  Citadel is a long
novel, though—saga certainly would be an apt description—and Mosse’s narrative
style can be choppy and long-winded by turns; for readers used to faster-paced
stories, this narrative style can have the effect of pulling readers out of the
story.  There is also the secondary
narrative in Citadel that Mosse is
known for.  She has done an
astounding amount of research on this particular region of France, as well as
early Christian history, and she again has injected that into this novel.  Besides recurring characters from her
other Languedoc novels, Mosse plays with the idea of an early Christian set of
texts which can effect events and people. 
While adding interest to the story, it also significantly increases the
page count.

 For
readers who love well-researched historical novels with a fair bit of romance, Citadel is for them.  Readers looking for a World War II
narrative based in Europe will also find much to enjoy in this novel, as will
those who like loosely connected novel series. 

 It
is worth mentioning that there is a small scene of sexual violence, as part of
a torture scene, towards the end of the novel that some readers may want to be
aware of.

Review of Sepulchre, by Kate Mosse

Sepulchre takes a cue from Mosse’s previous novel, Labyrinth, in being not only based in the same region of Southern France, but operating on the same double-timeline plot progression featuring a secret history that the contemporary main character must uncover.  Mosse’s writing style is that of a formula writer, one quite familiar with her subject matter, who treats the reader as a comfortable co-conspirator in a guilty-pleasure read that is full enough of facts to make it feel more worthwhile than it is. 

She treats the reader to plenty of descriptions of everything—scenery, people, significant objects, feelings—and throws in fun bits of romance and intrigue.  As Labyrinth had its references to a hidden history of the holy grail and those who seek to use its power to their advantage, Sepulchre is based on a mystery Tarot deck and the shady character who is trying to recover it.  Perhaps as a literal representation of the Tarot theme, characters meet–coincidence or fate?–and form intensely close relationships very quickly with few questions asked.  For example, the contemporary main character Meredith, on her first evening in Rennes-les-Bains, meets Hal and by the next day they are hugging, hand-holding, and feeling intense attractions for each other, as though they have known each other for their entire lives.  Based on the tone of the book and its themes, it’s pretty much a done deal that the two will end up in bed together, and with an eventual happily ever after.  

Hal and Meredith’s relationship is rather reminiscent of the strangely close relationship between Alice and Will in Labyrinth, both of whom turn out to be re-incarnations of a married couple from the thirteenth century.  Mosse is perhaps taking too much advantage of the liberties of coincidence.  A plethora of interesting in-depth research aside, the plot device begins to wear thin in Sepulchre, especially because even two-thirds through the novel nothing has really happened apart from both main characters in both timelines traveling from Paris to  Rennes-les-Bains, meeting people from the region, and making discoveries of dubious importance.

The tone of Sepulchre is personified by Leonie, seventeen years old when her story begins in 1891–delicate, impressionable, dramatic, innocent, both she and the novel move forward with no real direction other than a mysterious, yet companionable, happenstance.  Mosse seems very comfortable with the writing style and subject matter she has chosen, which adds to the overall sense of peace and implacability in the novel.  It is a strength which has a tendency to gloss over the story’s meandering progress.  To be truthful, the novel could do with a good many fewer words–adjectives and adverbs in particular–and still accomplish just as much.  But readers looking for a writer fully in love with her subject matter will enjoy Mosse’s style.

Characterization, though it relies on tropes for most major characters, is at least adequately developed so that each character reads as an individual.  I would’ve enjoyed the novel far more, I think, if Mosse had spend a little more time getting to know her characters, and really finding out what their quirks and best-held wishes were, rather than painting flat images of innocence, elegance, evil, etc.  Mosse’s best-developed character is actually the one who makes the shortest appearance: Marguerite, the mother of Leonie.  Marguerite has lived through the Paris Commune, the death of her husband, and raised two children on her own using her wits and physical charms to garner patrons who would support her financially.  She has an understanding of the world that is beyond most of the characters–the ways in which sex and violence have and will always be intertwined–and refuses to allow her children to see the true horror of it.  The novel, in fact, features a range of female characters, from the strong and worldly Marguerite, to the headstrong and fiercely loyal Leonie, to the elegant but withdrawing Isolde. The novel is satisfying because the reader gets to see all of these stories play out, but disappointing in that even in moments of the greatest tension there is little feeling of uncertainty and suspense—rather a constant sense of inevitability and formulaic plotting.

            Then again, readers who are looking for a romance with a dash of mystery will enjoy this novel, especially if they like historicals.  Mosse has clearly put a lot of effort into achieving a certain effect, and it certainly doesn’t go to waste.  Those interested in novels like The Da Vinci Code and others based on lost and conspiracy-theory histories will also enjoy Sepulchre as long as they’re not looking for too much action and suspense, as will those who like European settings and plenty of French idioms.  The novel also features a contemporary plot driven by the biography of Claude DeBussy, which will appeal to readers who like art and artist novels.

Divide My Love in Half: The Dangerous Pull of the Dual Narrative Novel

Authors use various narrative devices in their work to achieve particular ends.  Sometimes they are straightforward plot advancers, sometimes they have something to say about life, and sometimes they even have something to say about narrative itself.  I believe that with Kate Mosse’s two novels, Labyrinth and Sepulchre, she uses the dual narrative device to do a little of all three.  But where does the speaking end and the action begin?

In an interview on the blog Women’s Fiction Writers, Kristina McMorris explains that readers enjoy dual-narrative or dual timeline novels because, “Through interwoven timelines, we’re able to witness how the act of one person even decades ago can unknowingly alter the course of another person’s life down the road”.  There is a certain type of suspense that comes from a novel written in two entirely different time periods, but which intertwine throughout the novel.  It’s a feeling of inexorability, a sense that we almost already know what will happen because of what is happening right now, and yet a palpable thrilling sense of mystery multiplied twofold, due to the dual plots, the conflict that each main character is experiencing.  

Readers also get the best of both worlds, in a way, as the earlier narrative is often a historical one, full of the wonderful depictions of another time and place; it’s agreed in historical fiction circles that the biggest pitfall to writing a historical novel is not doing the right research, because just the right detail to perfect the story might be only a book or document away.   Authors of historical novels sometimes perform years of research just to write one novel, and they carefully insert historical facts into the narrative to bring the historical setting to life.   But readers don’t just get the historical narrative; a contemporary narrative complements the historical —two stories for the price of one!

But.

What makes a good historical fiction writer?  What makes a good contemporary fiction writer?  Can the two meet?  In many regards, writing fiction that takes place in the here and now is just like writing historical fiction.  If you write a novel that is supposed to be set in Chicago, but the only aspects of the narrative meant to elicit a sense of place are stereotypes and vague references to how windy it always is, readers are going to be turned off by your story.  Writing contemporary fiction takes a certain amount of introspection, and sometimes even research, to elicit the feel of a place—what it looks like, who lives there, the weather, the sense of place and history.  One would think that for historical fiction writers, adding a second timeline would be relatively simple—same methods, less guessing because you can actually go there right now.

But on a recent foray into historical dual narrative novel-reading, I’ve found that quite the opposite can come true all to easily.  In Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth and Sepulchre, the historical settings and narratives are quite wonderfully researched and brought to life.  The characters who lived in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Carcassonne in the former, and nineteenth-century Paris in the latter, are quite three-dimensional and alive and believable.  The characters who appear in the contemporary timelines in both, however, are less-so.  The novels feature a female protagonist each in the historical and contemporary narratives.  The protagonists from the twenty-first century in each novel are practically interchangeable, and the villain characters and the love interests don’t go much further.  

Labyrinth’s Alice and Sepulchre’s Meredith, even though one is English and the other from the United States, are twenty-something single intellectuals, strong-willed and a little afraid of the world, each looking to uncover some aspect of the past.  Though each has a slightly different motivation, each answers the pull with nearly the same lead-footed hypnosis.  They have to perform these tasks, of course, because otherwise the novel wouldn’t continue—the reader wouldn’t get the historical narrative because there would be no intrinsic reason for it.  I was amazed, at first, when I realized how stark the difference was between the development of characters across the two timelines in each novel, but in a way it makes sense.  

Historical novel-writing, as mentioned above, takes a large amount of effort and research just to get the place right, not to mention the characters.  Authors pore over every detail, making minute cuts here and there, until they practically come to inhabit the lives and worlds of their historical characters.  In her 2006 article “A Theory of Narrative Empathy,” Suzanne Keen describes authors almost as extreme empathizers.  She reports on a study in which fiction writers experience a feeling of their characters having independent agency, and a sense of “eavesdropping…, bargaining with them, and feeling for them” (221).  As Keen puts it, “Though clearly novelists still do exercise their authority by choosing the words that end up on the page, they may experience the creative process as akin to involuntarily empathizing with a person out there, separate from themselves” (221) and further reports that fiction writers as a group scored higher than the general population empathy. 

Putting these two facts together—that historical fiction writers pour themselves into their research and craft, and that fiction writers generally score extremely high on the empathy scale—it’s not surprising that a historical narrative would take precedence, even unwittingly, in a dual narrative novel.  Here McMorris also agrees, stating that it is important “to make sure the stakes are as equal as possible in both story lines.  Otherwise you risk tempting the reader to skim the chapters that in comparison have a lower level of tension.”  A dual narrative novel first inspired by a past event or person is the initial focus of tension and conflict—the author has to work to create the same level of interest and conflict in the contemporary narrative.  For an author already drawn to historical writing and research, it would be understandably difficult to muster the same level of empathy and interest for another, less inspiring time period.  

This is not to say that authors shouldn’t attempt such narrative devices, only that they should be aware of the pitfalls.  Indeed historical fiction is coming to have a broader role in understanding history itself than previously given credit for, and a historical narrative that can converse with the contemporary can be a great addition to a greater narrative about history and what we know about ourselves.  Indeed Margaret Atwood was quoted by Forrest G. Robinson in his 2004 article “We Should Talk: Western History and Wester Literature in Dialogue,” saying, “How do we know we know what we think we know?  And if we find that, after all, we don’t know what it is that we once though we knew, how do we know we are who we think we are, or thought we were yesterday, or thought we were—for instance—a hundred years ago?,” an argument for literature’s place in our historical understanding of ourselves, rather than relying on only an absolutist, modernist version of history.  Alice’s compulsion to uncover the history of twelfth-century Carcassonne, in Labyrinth, stems ultimately from it being her own personal family history, and she comes to an understanding of it through the stories she dreams and hears from other characters.  The Grail itself is meant to provide long life for a person to go forth, to bear witness and tell a truth.  A novel may only reveal one small part of a greater story of a place and time, but after all that is only what history books can do, and they can only tell it from one point of view.  For what is history, if not the story of us, and if histories forget the smaller narratives, what truths do they tell?  

And so we read on.

Sepulchre | Kate Mosse

What I’m Reading Now:

Sepulchre, by Kate Mosse, is in the style of her first novel Labyrinth, featuring the same Languedoc region of France, but taking place in a more recent time period.  I suppose my favorite aspect of the novel so far is Mosse’s use of language and dialect to develop her characters.  Each character speaks in their own distinct voice.  Of course the historical research that has gone into the novel is intriguing and impressive, though to be honest it sometimes comes across as a bit encyclopedic.

Sepulchre | Kate Mosse