The story begins in 1933 with its protagonist, Freddie Watson, entering a bookshop in Toulouse. He seeks out the owner, Monsieur Saurat, needing help with the translation of some medieval text written on a piece of parchment. Saurat reveals himself to be very interested in the matter, stating that the writing might be a document of historical significance, and asks Freddie where he found it so the latter begins to tell his story.
"'Tell me, Saurat, do you believe in ghosts?' A smile stole across the other man's lips. 'I am listening.'"
It was in December 1928 that Freddie first travelled to Tarascon-sur-Ariège in the French Pyranees, hoping for his poor state of health, which has not allowed him to work in the same job for a longer time throughout the last years, to improve. Before that, Freddie had been in a sanatorium after a mental breakdown triggered by the death of his brother George in the Great War. Even ten years later Freddie has not yet overcome his grief and lost all vitality. It soon becomes obvious that George was the only person who ever loved Freddie, their parents having been terribly distant, cold-hearted and careless. They too have deceased by the time the story begins, however Freddie confesses that it was rather a relief to him as now he doesn't have to pretend anymore that they have anything in common.
"'George?' His name dropped into the silent air. Then I felt my ribs tighten a notch, cracking like the tired winding mechanism on our old grandfather clock, and my arm fell back to my side in despair. There was nobody there. There never would be."
In France Freddie seems to take some pleasure in driving from one little town to the next until one night he finds himself in a heavy snowstorm that leads to a car accident, from which he is lucky to escape without major injuries. Afoot he makes his way to the small (fictional) village of Nulle in order to get help. There he finds lodging in the hotel of Madame and Monsieur Galy, who invite him to the annual fête de Saint-Etienne, which is taking place that night.
At the fête Freddie encounters the beautiful and mysterious Fabrissa and instantly falls in love with her. After waking up in his hotel room the next morning, he is determined to see her again. Oddly, when asking Madame Galy whether she knows the girl she claims to be sure that Freddie didn't leave the room after she had shown him to it. It also becomes evident that Freddie's recollections of the night do not match those of the other guests.
The story is very beautifully written, with much love for detail while there isn't that much action taking place. I liked how Mosse used some French words and phrases every now and then; I haven't really studied the language but could mostly guess the meaning from the context. Freddie's grief and despair after the loss of his brother was very well described so it was easy to feel with him. Much earlier than Freddie does the reader become an idea of what is really going on. Still it was fascinating to read how he finally finds out the truth towards the end so the puzzle is solved. I also think that Freddie failing to count together one and one is rather due to him being somewhat bewitched by the winter ghosts than to a general lack of reasoning. As the protagonist I found him really sympathetic. Before George's death he used to be a quiet and introverted person, being interested in history and a talented piano player but those things seem meaningless to him now.
The other characters, Monsieur Saurat and the inhabitants of Nulle Freddie comes across, especially Madame Galy, were also very likeable although they don't play such a big role. The story is mostly told through Freddie's eyes in the first person and in the third person throughout the parts in Toulouse that form the story frame. It is very sad in the beginning but with a truly satisfying and uplifting ending. In the last chapter we return to Monsieur Saurats bookshop and Freddie tells that he is now working for the Imperial War Graves Commission, travelling France and Belgium in order to look for places for headstones and cemeteries. I really liked the coverage of the topics of coping with the death of a loved one and the pointlessness of young men dying in war in this book.
"We remember so that such slaughter is never allowed to happen again. George, Madame Galy's son, the men of the Ariège, the Southdowners, we must remember them. All the lost boys."
It also is about the extermination of the Cathars (Catharism being a Christian dualist movement) in the late medieval, of which I hadn't explicitly heard before. The author gives a short overview over this topic in a note at the end of the book.
In sum I definitely recommend this book. It has many sad parts but still it left me with a good feeling. I loved the author's writing stile and most of the characters, especially Freddie. I think that "The Winter Ghosts" is a great combination of history and fantasy and very well suited for winter and Christmas time as it reminded me a little of fairy tales.