Thursday, June 11, 2015


Labyrinth might be described as the thinking woman's summer reading, chick lit with A levels for those with only a passing interest in getting a boyfriend. The story - a quest narrative set simultaneously in the 13th century and the present - concerns the safety of a set of crumbly books containing eternal verities that date back to ancient Egypt. The books belong to the Cathars, a sect active in medieval Pyrenean France who represent tolerance, ecumenicalism and all things nice (in fact, at times they resemble nothing so much as go-ahead Church of England curates in a multicultural urban parish). The baddies are the northern French, who disguise their greedy designs on the rich agricultural land of the Languedoc by using the language of religious orthodoxy and the cultural authority of the inquisition.

What really marks Labyrinth out is the fact that all the main roles - goodies as well as baddies, historical and contemporary - go to women. The job of heroine is split between the 13th-century Alaïs, the daughter of one of the leading men in Carcassonne, and Alice, a contemporary British woman who has managed to inveigle her way on to a local archaeological dig as a way of spinning out a lacklustre summer. As Alaïs and Alice become increasingly involved in preventing the books falling into the wrong hands, their adventures echo, qualify and extend one another's as if they were playing the same orchestral piece on slightly different instruments. It is a testimony to Kate Mosse's control over her material that the two narratives never seem to repeat or collide or, indeed, swamp one another.

The baddies, meanwhile, include Marie-Cecile, a French businesswoman who is after the books and who you know is evil because she wears sophisticated linen two-pieces that never seem to crease, despite the sweltering heat. The other wicked woman is Alaïs's sister, Oriane, who is not only raven-haired and curvy, in contrast to her sister's airy fairness, but also sleeping with her husband, Guilhem (and not for nothing is Marie-Cecile's part-time boyfriend, who turns out also to be an old contact of Alice's, called Will). As these examples suggest, Mosse's writing stays firmly within the conventional paradigms of popular historical fiction. At one point Alaïs's hair is described as being like a "waterfall", while Marie-Cecile's eyes resemble a cat's (if, in real life, you stumbled across such peculiar phenomena you would, depending on your sense of adventure, call either the emergency services or the local newspaper at once).

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There are those for whom holiday reading means revisiting the entire works of Dostoevsky or reassessing Heidegger, but for a larger number, holidays are an excuse for indulgence, and only a thumping doorstep of a racy beach-read will do, preferably with plenty of mystery and exotic locations.

For them, Kate Mosse's Labyrinth provides this year's gripping romp. The co-founder of the Orange Prize, already an established author of fiction, has written what she describes as her first work of commercial fiction.

Commercial fiction is a peculiar term. On the one hand, it is faintly apologetic, and on the other, presumptuous, because only when books are in the shops do we find out if they're commercial or not. Certainly, the apology isn't necessary here, because Mosse's novel is always intelligently written. Her love of the location around Carcassonne (where she lives some of the time) is evident from her generous descriptions of the city and the surrounding countryside; and her research into the details of the Cathars' lives and language is evidently extensive.

The presumption, on the other hand, is probably fair enough. My guess would be that Labyrinth will fulfil everyone's expectations for it, not least because of Mosse's passion for the subject matter and her narrative verve. And fashionably - although she couldn't possibly have known it would have become fashionable when she started out some years ago - it's also a grail novel.

Set both in the present, and at the beginning of the 13th century, the book has two heroines: modern-day Alice, who begins the novel helping out on an archaeological dig, and Alaïs, a teenage girl in Carcassonne at the time of the Fourth Crusade, which was launched against the Cathars on the grounds of their heresy, although it was always in reality a land grab by northern France against the south.

(The Cathars broadly represent tolerance in the novel, often of a distinctly modern, anti-racist kind. According to the book's own explanation, the Cathars' belief was that the world was created by the devil, and that if they lived a good life and 'made a good end' they would be reunited with God. If not, they would be reincarnated on earth. But, probably for plot reasons, Mosse leaks this explanation late on, actually on page 437 - rather frustratingly if you know absolutely nothing about the period and have to keep thinking: 'Who are these people and what's the heresy?')

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