Memento Mori

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Sunday, May 11, 2008


By Kate Mosse

Putnam. 572 pp. $25.95

Kate Mosse has capitalized on the success of Labyrinth with a new novel boasting similar elements: strong female heroines, dual narratives connected across a vast span of years, the villages of southwestern France and even a search for historic artifacts. But this time it's a quest for family secrets -- not a treasure hunt -- that binds the twinned tales.

In 1891, 17-year-old Léonie Vernier simply can't understand her older brother, Anatole, and his extreme sensitivity about his private life; she never met his last lover but does try to ease his grief at the woman's burial during the book's opening scene. So when the siblings are invited six months later to visit Domaine de la Cade, the country estate of recently widowed Aunt Isolde, Léonie anticipates some quality time with Anatole -- and a chance to catch up on her macabre reading. She discovers "stories about devils, evil spirits and ghosts associated with this region" and explores a creepy old sepulchre on the estate's grounds. But stolen glances between Anatole and their surprisingly beautiful aunt leave Léonie feeling the odd woman out. Worse, she's ignorant of a greater danger lurking behind the pair's secretiveness: a lover from Isolde's past -- spurned, duped and now hell-bent on revenge.

Shift to 2007: Meredith Martin takes a break from researching her biography of composer Claude Debussy to delve into her own family history. She's led by an old photograph and a piece of sheet music titled "Sepulchre 1891" to visit -- you guessed it -- the Domaine de la Cade. En route, she stops for a Tarot reading and finds the spitting image of herself on the face on one of the cards -- La Justice, of course. Once she arrives at the ancient estate, she becomes embroiled in a contemporary mystery involving the "accidental" death of one of the domaine's co-owners.

Mosse achieves an admirable completeness here -- not just in the dual stories' tight parallels but in the vividly rendered settings, the careful interweaving of historical detail, even the nuanced depictions of these characters, particularly Léonie. But despite Mosse's stylistic skill, the story skirts dangerously close to cliche -- figures lurk in distant shadows, the wind whistles, storms rage. At least four major incidents take place on Halloween, and just when you think the book has everything but a mob of angry villagers, you get that too: "on the distant horizon . . . a line of flaming torches, gold and ochre against the black night sky."

All of this might seem damning if Sepulchre weren't such a giddy read. Throughout, Mosse intertwines her literary influences and the story at hand as playfully, intricately and suspensefully as she melds the material and the supernatural, past and present. Everything intersects in a goose bump-inducing finale at the sepulchre, which bears an inscription warning all who enter: "Fujhi, poudes; Escapa, non." (Flee, you may; escape, you cannot.) But really, with a book this much fun, who would want to do either?

-- Art Taylor is an assistant professor at George Mason University.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company