Sunday, September 12, 2010

Labyrinths, Carcassonne and Another Chapter of the Grail

The search for the Holy Grail is considered the ultimate quest. Recent literature has imagined the Grail into every form and hiding place it could think of. Kate Mosse’s idea behind the Grail was unique, surprisingly so, though I feel she failed to deliver on the promise of her story. However, it was not for this latest chapter in Grail mythology I bought a copy of Labyrinth back in 2005. Though I may argue I’ve lugged it around until now without reading it because of that Grail connotation connected with this story.

This book first caught my eye across a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, a booklover’s heaven. It was during my semester abroad in England and the bibliophile in me had been trying to avoid buying a slew of books I would somehow need to get home. However, Hay-on-Wye beat me. It was too much to resist and I left that little haven with more books bought in a day than any other time in my life. I remember vividly the moment I caught sight of this book though. It has a gorgeous cover (as you can see) but that wasn’t all that drew me. "Labyrinth" in and of itself was a word that drew me. I was introduced to the magic and mysticism behind the labyrinth mythology in 11th grade French class. Madame had chosen the labyrinth of Chartres for our project that year at the foreign language festival. We all stood around in our purple T-shirts and massive labyrinth reproduction and recited out story faithfully. I wish I had my school materials here with me. I know in my plastic bins at home in the basement I have the entire spiel among my French materials. I had done some reading beyond class for the idea of labyrinth and found it fascinating as a substitute for the holy pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the devoted in their own cathedrals.

This book also had another magic word associated with it. Just within its cover flap, the word Carcassonne screamed out to me and that was it, this book was coming home with me. I visited Carcassonne on my 12th grade trip to France with Madame. I fell in love with the walled city the moment I saw it, across the fields of dormant grape vines in the early April sunshine. Walking its streets, the history of the place has never left me. I remember its narrow streets, houses so close that two people could reach across and touch hands across the road. It was like stepping back in time for a moment and it has remained the highlight of my trip since then. This book, set in both medieval and modern day Carcassonne was one I needed to read.

So, it was odd that it took me 5 years from the moment I bought this book to the moment I read it. But, the idea that it was another book about the Grail put me off. I found other books to read, other things to do but the imagery of the book and its premise has meant I’ve never been able to let this book go. So, once I started my quest to read every book on my shelves, it was only a matter of time before I had to tackle this book.

The story follows two women in different times, one, Alaïs in the summer of 1209 when a force of Northern French nobility and Catholic priests came to the Midi to root out the heretics in name, but in truth, it was a bid for land and power; the other, Alice, in modern day France, volunteering on an archeological dig in the foothills of the Pyrenees when she discovers a cave hidden for 800 years. Both are about to begin a journey of a lifetime to protect a secret thousands of years old.

This story lacks the excitement of say, Dan Brown. It is more subtle, more involved with the setting of the story than the story itself. Carcassonne and its surrounding countryside is a character in itself as is the mythology of the Pays d’Oc and its ancient language, what seemed to me a combination of French and Spanish. In that, it is a lyrical read as Mosse gives you a tour of the Midi and its romance. But, because it is not quite a thriller, the story is harder to become invested in a reader. It is also a rather obvious story. You are never in any doubt of who the heroes and villains are, which makes the character’s ignorance of those facts annoying after awhile. Dramatic irony has its place but the pay –off for when the character discovers the fact never materialized in this novel. The characters seem to miss their ‘ah ha’ moments. They figure out the facts but there seems to be no reaction from them. Also, I feel like Mosse had a germ of a great idea for the mythology but honestly, it is underwhelming in its realization. The use of the Bons Chrétiens and their history was clever and interesting but you’re never quite sure how important it actually is to the story itself. In general, Mosse had a rich history to pull from and uses it but I felt there was more potential there than she discovered.

I liked the characters but I did not love them. They live in the moment of the story and there are details I feel like I am missing about them in order to really be invested in their story. I liked the two Alices best and luckily, they are who carry the story. Two strong, smart women who are entrusted with the protection of the Grail? What’s not to like? The mythology of women surrounding the Grail though was unsurprising considering the recent additions to the Grail mythology. But, I liked the use of the two heroines and how the action revolved around them, even as they remained elusive to the rest of the characters and even to the reader. There are still questions I would like answered about the two heroines so now I am left to fill in the blanks.

I feel like my history with this book itself was more interesting than what I had to say about the book itself. It felt incomplete to me. Wrapped up too quickly with lingering questions from me, its reader. However, if only because it gave me an excuse to revisit Carcassonne through its words, I am glad I finally made time to read its pages. My next read is another Kate Mosse book set in the south of France. Also bought on the strength of the promise of Labyrinth. I am hoping it will impress me more.

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