There is a castle in THE DISTANT HOURS, and a moat, not to mention a deep forest; there is a trio of slightly batty, secretive sisters; there is a likable protagonist --- an editor, passionate about reading --- who goes sleuthing where she shouldn’t; and there is one particularly crucial dark and stormy night. There is romance, too, but most of the love affairs lie in the past and are forbidden and/or thwarted.
Like tea and toast in the morning, the elements of a satisfying gothic novel are reliably present in every one of Kate Morton’s books (I’ve read all three), making them the sort of reading material you count on to see you through a country weekend, a bout of insomnia, or an overnight flight. Call it Comfort Fiction.
I heaved a contented sigh when this novel began with an intriguing, slightly bone-chilling excerpt from the mysterious fairy tale that is a key factor in the plot. I adore children’s fantasies, so I identified immediately with the narrator’s love of books. I am mad for England, especially the World War II era, so I was thrilled that this novel jumps back and forth between the late 1930s and early 1940s, and 1992. And I have always wanted to live (or at least read and write) in a turret.
The story is complicated, but here is the short(ish) version. Edith (Edie) Burchill, a young Londoner, discovers that her mother was one of the children sent to the countryside for protective purposes during the Blitz --- specifically, she landed at Milderhurst Castle in Kent. Shortly thereafter, Edie finds herself in the neighborhood of the castle and realizes that its late owner, Raymond Blythe, wrote her favorite childhood book, a classic called The True History of the Mud Man (Morton’s invention but entirely credible, it’s about a fearsome Black Lagoon-type creature emerging from the moat and clambering up the tower where a young girl dreams and waits). She visits Milderhurst and its current residents, Raymond Blythe’s daughters: gruff, chain-smoking Persephone (Percy); her pretty, timid twin, Seraphina (Saffy); and Juniper, their sister by Raymond’s second marriage, an inspired writer and fragile soul who has episodes of violence and memory loss.
The Blythes have a very chequered past. Raymond’s mother (fell from tower) and first wife (burned alive) expire under suspicious and dramatic circumstances; in his later years, he becomes paranoid and uncharacteristically religious, and he, too, falls to his death. Percy, Saffy and Juniper have all loved and lost, though Morton is canny about not revealing the precise details of their respective tragedies until the end of the book. As Edie pursues these mysteries (ostensibly to research the introduction to a new edition of The True History of the Mud Man), she finds that her mother, Meredith, who became Juniper’s confidante during her stay at the castle, is herself mixed up in the family’s intimate history.
Indeed, I found the relationship between Edie and her mother the most compelling feature of THE DISTANT HOURS. In her youth, Meredith has literary inclinations, and at Milderhurst she is encouraged in this by the Blythes --- until her rather unimaginative parents haul her back to London. She grows up to become a conventional wife and mother, but now, as her daughter delves into the past, we see Meredith morph back into the creative spirit she once was (though not without a great deal of initial resistance). Morton handles this transformation with delicacy and compassion. Even Edie’s stolid father becomes engaged in the hunt for the truth behind Blythe’s celebrated book. Who is the Mud Man, and what does it all mean?
I don’t want to say too much more, because the success of Morton’s work depends on a series of carefully timed revelations. However, they struck me as somewhat anticlimactic simply because there are so many of them. In striving to show how family secrets, conflicts and patterns resonate over the generations, Morton makes her story denser and more repetitive than necessary. Although Edie is the principal voice, each of the sisters, their father and Edie’s mother also narrate episodes from 40 years back, and soon we are awash in jilted women, ardent writers and guilty memories. It feels like overkill to me.
The good thing about Morton’s work is that she evokes the finest prose traditions and thereby elevates what could have been a jejune romance into something more substantial. She summons the reader’s intensely emotional relationship to books like JANE EYRE and REBECCA (madwomen or -men in attics, great houses going up in flames, and so forth); and her plot devices, frequently more convenient than believable, recall Dickens. But this is a two-edged sword. Although Morton’s writing has flashes, indeed whole passages, of brilliance, it isn’t on the same level as the masters upon whom she patterns herself. At times she lapses into howlers (“greedy greenery”; “his heart splurting”) that I wish a keen-eyed editor had caught.
I know that Morton is capable of more than well-crafted diversions. She has the talent (and perhaps needs the courage) to write a less predictable, less derivative book. I’m thinking of novels that draw on the gothic tradition but also transcend it, such as Sarah Waters’s THE LITTLE STRANGER or Jean Rhys’s stunning JANE EYRE prequel, WIDE SARGASSO SEA. Like all literary “children,” Morton wants to carry on the heritage of the great storytellers of the past. But perhaps it is time to take that legacy into fresh territory. Now that would really be a treat.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on November 8, 2010
The Distant Hours