The Distant Hours (2010) by Kate Morton
1992 London. Edie (Edith) Burchill's life is about to get interesting. A long-lost letter from the 1940s--initially mailed during World War II and just discovered languishing in a bagful of mail in a former postman's attic--arrives for her mother. It's obvious from Meredith Burchill's reaction that the letter has upset her, but Edie and her mother have never been very close and Meredith won't answer all of Edie's questions. She does tell her that she had been evacuated during the war and the letter was from one of the sisters she stayed with. The letter wasn't upsetting--just a shock. But Edie notes the return address on the envelope.
Through a set of fortuitous events, Edith winds up in the country near Milderhurst Castle--the place where the letter originated and she meets the now elderly women with whom her mother spent time in the 40s. It also just happens to be the home of Raymond Blythe, the author of Edie's favorite children's book The Mud Man. The Blythe sisters have spent their entire lives at the castle--in part because their father's will insisted on it and in part because the elder sisters (twins) have been taking care of the youngest, Juniper. Juniper has never been the same since the night her fiance was supposed to come to dinner and he never showed up--and was never heard from again.
Edie's aunt gives her letters that Meredith wrote to their parents during the evacuation which piques her curiosity even more. She becomes determined to discover the secrets that she's certain her mother is keeping. But there are bigger secrets in the castle--secrets that date from Raymond Blythe's time through the years that Meredith spent at the castle. And it just might be the case that some secrets should never be told.
The heart of the story is a really good one. The mysteries surrounding Meredith's childhood, Juniper's love affair, the origins of the Mud Man, and the Blythe family and their castle were definitely intriguing. And Morton has a definite gift for atmosphere and description of place. You can see the castle in all its dusty ruin. The place is full of despair and broken dreams. The poor Blythe sisters who longed for something more, but whose father arranged things so they could never have it. There are definite Gothic elements and I wanted to just sink into the story and enjoy all the shivers and mystery that come with Gothic. But I just couldn't immerse myself the way I wanted to.
My biggest quibble with Morton's story is that she not only insists on telling us a great deal of the plot (through second-hand accounts in Meredith's letters and journal) but she then turns around and shows us the same details in flashbacks to the 1940s. We don't need both and it is always preferable to be shown than to just be told what happened and how the characters felt and acted. The book would have been considerably shorter if we could have just followed the action during each time period rather than being told about it first.
Spoiler encoded In ROT13 (to decode, copy & paste, then click on the link and enter in the appropriate place)
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★★★ for the basis of the story and for the atmosphere.
More Spoilers: *Naq, ol gur jnl, jung xvaq bs travhf tbrf gb zrrg gurve tveysevraq'f snzvyl sbe gur svefg gvzr naq qrpvqrf gung fvapr gurl nera'g pbzvat gb gur sebag qbbe va n gvzryl snfuvba gung vg jbhyq or n oevyyvnag vqrn gb fpnyr gur pnfgyr jnyy va gur zvqqyr bs n enva fgbez? Lrf, lrf, ur jnf tbvat gb gel naq svk gur fuhggre fb gur yvtug jbhyqa'g fubj va gur oynpx-bhg--ohg fgvyy. Naq jung xvaq bs nhgube znxrf gurve punenpgre qb fhpu na vafnaryl ovmneer guvat--rkprcg gb cebivqr n engure varyrtnag rkcynangvba bs jung unccrarq gb gur cbbe zna?
First line (prologue): Hush...Can you hear him?
First line (1st Chapter): It started with a letter.
Last line: The door closes behind her, leaving the ghostly lovers alone once more in the quiet and warm.
Deaths = 19 (nine natural; two shot; two fell from height; five burned to death; one hit on head)