Debussy's "Demoiselle Elue"

Bookhounders may remember that I enjoyed Kate Mosse's adventure-fantasy-romance Labyrinth, which I reviewed last year. I did have reservations. Much as I enjoyed the historical storyline, the plot was plain daft, but it made for compelling reading, and made me long for France. And so, I finally got round to reading the second in her French trilogy - Sepulchre.

Labyrinth may have been the novel that the public loved, but Sepulchre seems to have been universally acclaimed by the critics. And there's a very good reason for this - it's a much better book. I adored it, and if it's also daft as a brush sometimes, it gets away with it harking back to that greatest of British horror story writers, M.R. James.

The story opens with an American music student, Meredith Martin, arriving in Paris to complete research on the composer Claude Debussy. Martin is also on her own personal mission to uncover her own genealogy. The Debussy and Martin trails will take her to Languedoc into the heart of Cathar country around Rennes-les-bains. Haunted by a set of tarot cards with a portrait that looks strikingly like her, Martin sets out to uncover the events that took place over 100 years before.

As with Labyrinth, Sepulchre has two parallel storylines. One contemporaneous, the other set at an earlier period. There are a few characters common to both - you may have a slightly greater understanding of events if you have read the earlier book, but it is by no means essential. Mosse is excellent at bringing the shady world of fin-de-siecle France to life. She is also excellent when writing about the country, with wonderfully evocative prose that oozes the lands of the south. Her historical characters are especially well-developed.

If the music side is a little disappointing, the world of esoterica bubbles creepily beneath the surface. As with Labyrinth the historical story rates much higher than the modern tale, which seems to be there more to propel the story forward and give it a slightly eerier edge with a plotline that is taken virtually wholesale from M.R. James' Casting the runes, and its cinematic remake (a classic of British horror cinema) Night of the demon (aired in the US as Curse of the demon). There's nothing wrong with this however, as horror stories and films don't come much better than James and Demon. 

I adored this book. Sure, it's not going to be on anyone's list of 100 greatest novels of all time, but if you want a compelling read that takes you to a completely different time and place, you can't get much better than this. It made me feel that I was back in France savouring the sights and smells of autumn.


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