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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

"The Distant Hours" by Kate Morton (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Kate Morton Website
Order The Distant Hours HERE

Last year more or less by chance, I opened the author's 2008 (UK/US) debut The House at Riverton originally published in Australia as The Shifting Fog (2006). I was hooked from the first page and the novel has become a big time favorite. Her somewhat similar second novel The Forgotten Garden made a bit less of an impression on me - I read it back to back with The House at Riverton and I should have left some time to pass in-between so maybe a reread is in order, but any new Kate Morton novel has become a big asap and of course I ordered "The Distant Hours" for its UK publication date last month, though I decided to have the review for its publication here in the US.

"Edie Burchill and her mother have never been close, but when a long lost letter arrives one Sunday afternoon with the return address of Millderhurst Castle, Kent, printed on its envelope, Edie begins to suspect that her mother’s emotional distance masks an old secret.

Evacuated from London as a thirteen year old girl, Edie’s mother is chosen by the mysterious Juniper Blythe, and taken to live at Millderhurst Castle with the Blythe family: Juniper, her twin sisters and their father, Raymond. In the grand and glorious Millderhurst Castle, a new world opens up for Edie’s mother. She discovers the joys of books and fantasy and writing, but also, ultimately, the dangers.
Fifty years later, as Edie chases the answers to her mother’s riddle, she, too, is drawn to Millderhurst Castle and the eccentric Sisters Blythe. Old ladies now, the three still live together, the twins nursing Juniper, whose abandonment by her fiancĂ© in 1941 plunged her into madness.
Inside the decaying castle, Edie begins to unravel her mother’s past. But there are other secrets hidden in the stones of Millderhurst Castle, and Edie is about to learn more than she expected. The truth of what happened in the distant hours has been waiting a long time for someone to find it . . . "

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "The Distant Hours" stands at about 575 pages divided into five named parts, a prologue from The True History of the Mud Man and an epilogue. The action alternates between Eddie's narration in 1992 and the events of 1941 narrated in third person from the three Bltyhe' sisters POV's, while the even more distant past of their father's fateful actions and decisions is slowly peeled apart too.

So as a ghostly shadow hovering over the novel, there is the celebrated writer Raymond Blythe whose dark children's book The True History of the Mud Man excerpted in the prologue, has appeared out of nowhere towards the end of the Great War in 1918 to propel him to fame and wealth after he seemingly had forsaken writing following the tragic 1910 fiery death of his first wife, the twins' mother.

"The Distant Hours" is modern literary Gothic and as close to sff as it gets without any element of the supernatural.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "The Distant Hours" starts innocuously when a fifty year old letter finally makes its way to Meredith Burchill and her daughter is intrigued and banters with her about the war years when the 13 year old working class Meredith, evacuated in 1939 from London to the countryside, is picked up by the imperious 17 year old Juniper Blythe to live with her and her 33 year old twin sisters at the Milderhurst Castle. What Eddie does not know at the time is how important those years have been for her mother...

Because in 1939, Meredith gets so well on with the eccentric and talented Juniper who has been groomed for a literary career by her now recluse and decrepit father, that she refuses to return to London and her parents until Spring 1941. Meredith also sort-of introduces Juniper to her handsome teacher Tom Carvill - her secret first crush - only for the two to fall in love and prepare to marry. Feeling herself abandoned by Juniper when the important missing letter does not arrive in London 1941, Meredith assumes Juniper married Tom and forgot all about her and she puts the past behind... Until now.

Eddie has her problems too - dumped by her well off longtime boyfriend who gave her as a parting gift a six month lease on their expensive London apartment, she now needs to move since she cannot afford it anymore, but as an editor at a cottage publisher she wants to stay close to her work, so she temporarily camps out in her boss and surrogate "old uncle" Herbert's living room, without of course telling a thing to her family... When a countryside job and a chance road sign with "Milderhurst 3 miles" on it happen, Eddie is intrigued but on arriving at the castle's gate she remembers stopping by as a child with her mother, so she realizes that the letter is way more important for her mother than she thought, so she decides to nose around a bit. And so it starts...

The handle was black and smooth, shaped like a shin bone and cool beneath my palm. Indeed, a general coldness seemed to leach from the other side of the door; though how, I couldn’t tell.
My fingers tightened around the handle, I started to twist, then—
‘We don’t go in there.’
My stomach, I don’t mind saying, just about shot through the roof of my mouth.
I spun on my heel, scanned the gloomy space behind. I could see nothing, yet clearly I wasn’t alone. Someone, the owner of the voice, was in the corridor with me. Even if she hadn’t spoken I’d have known: I could feel another presence, something moving and hiding in the drawing shadows. The rustling was back now, too: louder, closer, definitely not in my head, definitely not mice."

"The Distant Hours" has four main strengths. It is a Kate Morton novel, so nothing is quite as it seems, secrets abound, twists and turns galore and there were one or two that truly surprised me since while I could dimly see where the book goes and have an inkling of its general thrust, the author still managed to smoothly drop a bomb or two...

The atmosphere is pitch perfect - a combination of suspense and waiting for the momentous with little domestic details, present day happenings and other mundane stuff. Alternating between "holding your breath" and relaxing, "The Distant Hours" keeps one turning page after page and while it has a clear and definite conclusion, I strongly regretted that it ended since I could happily have read another 575 pages.

"The Distant Hours" also has the fascinating characters one expects from Kate Morton. The likable, "girl next door" Eddie, her somewhat distant mother of unexpected secrets and of course the three Blythe sisters: strong Percy, delicate Saffy and very talented but highly strung Juniper come out fully alive in the pages of the novel and they are quite unforgettable. Though seen only in the background and through the eyes of others, Raymond Blythe is as important a character as any, though for the why and the how you have to read the book.

Where "The Distant Hours" shows a marked improvement over the first two Kate Morton novels is in the interpersonal-relationships between the characters which are very complex and tangled. With its back and forth in time-line and events, the novel's tapestry takes a while to assemble, but the page turning style of the author hides this so well, that when you start getting the "big picture", you wonder how she sneaked all the details that seemed so innocuous before...

"The Distant Hours" (A++) is a superb novel of literary suspense that delivered all I expected from it and more, fully justifying my very high expectations and huge excitement when I found out about it not that long ago.


shaneo52 said...

Hi Liviu, Great review, I've been tempted to read her novels. You liked this more then her previous two?

Liviu said...

I would say yes by a little wr House at Riverton mainly because the book is clearly more polished as befits a 3rd novel vs a debut; many people had great things to say about Forgotten Garden, but for me I guess the back-to-back reading wr House made me enjoy it less, so i am planning a reread in a little while

W.B. said...

Kate Morton's novels are absolutely breathtaking. I haven't read this one yet, but I plan on it! :)


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