When Charlotte de Chastenet returns to her family’s chateau in the south of France suffering amnesia as a result of an accident, the building and landscape—and most importantly, her family—are foreign too her. Beneath her fingertips she feels that “[t]here is an energy of secrets in the old timber.” It is this energy of secrets that pulls the reader along in Sarah Ridout’s gothic mystery, Le Chateau. Below every surface the reader, and Charlotte, feels the hum of a dark secret but is unable to grasp what it is. Elusive, as are her memories.
This is a book that I didn’t want to put down; it pulsed. The imagery Ridout draws on to describe the landscape and agricultural cycles of the vineyard mirror this vibrating sensation. There is so much LIFE in this, like blood running through veins and ancestral lines. Light is refracted through crystals hung at the windows, Charlotte experiences throbbing headaches that make her dizzy, there is a spiral staircase that gives the reader vertigo as action occurs up and down it, always with the fear of Charlotte slipping.
Is this what happened to her to cause her accident? The reader wonders. The questions accumulate in a quickening pace, and every time her mother-in-law, Madame, appears I hold my breath. Because she feels malevolent, stirring up notions of witchcraft and things unnatural to preserve her family line. From the moment she appears in the story, she is a Mrs Danvers to Charlotte’s Rebecca.
Among the many parallels between Le Chateau and Daphne Du Maurier’s classic gothic novel, there is the presence of the house itself. The immensity and luxury of the building paradoxically creating a feeling of claustrophobia and menace. Charlotte’s best friend Susannah tells her: “it’s a mausoleum and you’ve always been so alive”, because there is an energy within its walls sapping her vitality.
Ridout creates this gripping effect, immersing the reader in the story through lush descriptions, both sensory and sensual.
“The surface is calm and still, like an immense mirror. Its mosaic design of random gold and silver tiles nestled in dove grey sets off a duet with the sunlight coming from the glass dome above. It is Klimt-like, so ethereal. At night the little lights set into the bottom of the pool must form a heavenly constellation in the moonlight.”
The rural grounds are a “Dali dreamscape”, with cow horns semi-buried in the planting garden. The Festa organised by Madame is a living nightmare for Charlotte: “I stare into the nothingness of empty eye sockets”. A fug of rotten stench hangs over the cemetery.
There are other smells too: lavender and bay, leather that smells of chocolate truffles, Jardins de Bagatelle perfume, and horsey smells of all sort. Memory and smell are known to be connected. With her amnesia, Charlotte has no memory of her life with her husband Henri, or their daughter Ada. The smells of the chateau are foreign to her. Instead, she remembers her life before: university in the UK, and life in Australia.
“I hold a leaf, slate-blue with a chalky surface. I rub it, releasing its thick vapour into the air. Memory crests over me like a breaking wave and saturates my senses. It returns me to childhood, long hot summers and the sound of cicadas and kookaburras. The scorching, relentless heat, the bitumen layered with a steamy heat haze and the constant blue-grey screen of eucalypts and their energising, cleansing aroma.”
Le Chateau is also a novel of the expat experience. Memories of other places become heightened, sharpened when trapped as an outsider in a foreign, unknown world. Charlotte’s foreignness in the household and the country overwhelm her, she feels dislocated and out-of-place. She clings to her Australian friend Susannah’s visits and the fake eucalyptus smell sprayed on a leaf, which bring her memories more solid and real than those that come back to her of her life in Languedoc, fragmentary and unsettling.
But as she grows to relearn the place she now calls home, she draws parallels between the Languedoc region and Australia: “the ancient land holding dark secrets. Both enduring genocides and extermination.”
iHer doctor, Jeremie, informs her of the Albegensian Crusade, when Cathars were “hunted down and murdered as heretics”. She learns that there are families still in Languedoc who trace their lineage back to the Cathars trying to reclaim their identity and reinvigorate the old customs.
The veil of genocide overlays the vineyard idyll, and the past reverberates through generations.