Franschhoek link in sweeping historical novel set in France

burning chamabers

burning chambers

Review: Adelle Horler

The Burning Chambers, by Kate Mosse (Mantle/ Pan Macmillan)

Fans of Kate Mosse – the author, not the model – will be delighted to know there’s another historical French trilogy on its way, with the first book, The Burning Chambers, released in May.

Happily for us in South Africa, part of the series will play out here – in fact, the entire story was inspired by Mosse’s visit to the Huguenot Museum while at the Franschhoek Literary Festival* several years ago.

“There, on the wall, was the name of a family I’d written about in my first historical novel, Labyrinth,’’ she says. “It was a shiver-down-the-spine moment.”

I devoured her three earlier bestsellers, Labyrinth, Sepulchre and Citadel, all set largely in the Languedoc region of southern France in different time periods, from the 13th century to World War II.

Most vivid for me was Labyrinth, which wove a gripping human story around the heinous persecution and extermination of the Cathars by the Catholic Church in the 1200s. It sticks to recorded fact, so you finish the story more informed about that period, but far more rich detail than you’d find in a straight historical account.

The Burning Chambers is similarly informative – also set in the Languedoc region, mainly Carcassonne and Toulouse, but here Mosse has moved on about 300 years to the bloody Wars of Religion in the late 1500s, which ended in 1598 with the the signing of the Edict of Nantes.

This time it’s the Protestant Huguenots who are rejecting the excesses and abuses of the Catholic Church, choosing to worship more simply and in their own language rather than Latin. The papal backlash is severe, pitting friend against friend and igniting civil war, where a betrayal, intentional or otherwise, can send people into the torturing hands of the Inquisition, to emerge broken, or not at all.

Nineteen-year-old Minou Joubert lives in the old citadel of Carcassonne with her bookseller father and two siblings. One day a letter, wax-sealed with a peculiar family crest, is tucked under her door, bearing just five words: “She knows that you live.”

A secret surrounds Minou’s birth, and a mysterious will – if it exists – grants her an inheritance she knows nothing about. While Minou is caught up in the Huguenot-Catholic civil war that flares in Toulouse, helping – against her faith – the Huguenot fighter Piet Reydon, someone else is on a ruthless quest to find her and remove the threat she presents, once and for all.

The trilogy will follow the Huguenot story all the way through to the late 1800s in Franschhoek, via Paris and Amsterdam. But, as the tantalising prologue to The Burning Chambers suggests, old secrets cast long shadows. It’s now 1862 and a woman, a descendant of Minou, is in Franschhoek’s graveyard, about to finally prove the truth of the secret. But as the shadow of a man falls across the tombstone, she realises a 300-year-old family feud doesn’t end so easily.  

The Burning Chambers sweeps you up in an immensely human story set against a swirling historical canvas with convincing detail, giving you a real idea of what it was like to live and love in that terribly troubled period of history.

* Kate Mosse will be at this year’s Franschhoek Literary Festival from May 18 to 20.

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