Oh how I wanted to enjoy this book.
In my third year at university I spent an incredible year ‘teaching’ (I use this term loosely) English in Perpignan in South West France. A very good friend of mine from uni was doing the same thing in Carcassonne, about 70 km or a shortish train journey to the north east, so I spent many weekends visiting her there or touring the area.
In the 1200s the region around Carcassonne was the battleground of the Albigensian Crusade, as the Northern French attacked the ‘heretic’ Cathars of the Languedoc in a landgrab disguised as a religious crusade. The history of that time is one of sieges, massacres, burnings alive and a land lost – the whole intermingled with stories of hidden treasure, Templar knights and, of course, the Holy Grail.
Everywhere you go in the region there are echoes of this past – in the funny old bookshops where books on Rosicrucianism and Occitan share shelf space with Tarot cards and crystals; in the sounds of the tourist industry cashing in on the romantic splendour and isolation of the Cathar castles; in the eccentric treasure-seekers who still flock to Carcassonne and Rennes-le-Chateau in the belief that the Holy Grail is somehow hidden around the next corner; and yes, in a certain wistful melancholy that still clings to some of these castles if you visit early in the day before the tourist hordes arrive.
And so, years before Dan Brown made the Holy Grail sexy, I became completely besotted with the Cathars and the history of the crusade.
Kate Mosse (sic)’s book is a timeslip novel set in present-day Carcassonne and its 13th century parallel. Its central characters are, unusually, female; it is tolerably well-written and the bits set in 13th century Carcassonne are evocative and apparently well-researched. Unfortunately the plot also features people being banged on the head every other chapter; two female heroines, without an ounce of common sense between them doing everything they can to put themselves in danger; two comic-book style female villainesses and the most incredibly fantastical and lazily-written denouement.
But, most unforgivably of all, the book is deadly dull. I didn’t care enough about the heroines, the tangled plot was far too knotty for me and I kept confusing the vast cast of characters and their similar-sounding French names (and I speak French). One day I’m going to analyse how Dan Brown can write shockingly bad novels which keep me turning pages faster than a windmill on acid, whereas I plodded through this one like a seaside donkey and can’t now, two weeks after finishing it, tell you much about the plot. And, oh, I so wanted to love it.
By the way, the press reviews quoted in the first few pages are EXTREMELY kind (and one of the reasons why I decided to buy the book), far kinder indeed than the customer reviews on Amazon. Could it be anything to do with the fact that the author is the co-founder of the Orange Prize for Fiction and a big literary cheese?