Thursday, June 29, 2023

The Distant Hours

 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)

Zl bgure qvfnccbvagzrag jnf jvgu gur npghny fbyhgvba gb jung unccrarq gb Whavcre'f svnapr. V thrffrq cneg bs vg, ohg vg jnf n uhtr yrg-qbja gung gur zna jnf xvyyrq va gur jnl ur jnf. V zrna, yrg gur qrngu unir fbzr zrnavat sbe Crgr'f fnxr. Vg jbhyq unir znqr gbgny frafr vs Crepl unq uvg uvz bire gur urnq naq qvfcbfrq bs gur obql gb xrrc Whavcre sebz zneelvat naq gur pnfgyr orvat tvira gb gur Pngubyvp Puhepu. Crepl jnf fb cebgrpgvir bs gur snzvyl'f vagrerfgf naq jnf fb qribgrq gb gur pnfgyr gung V pbhyq unir obhtug gung. Ohg gb unir uvz gel gb pyvzo hc gur pnfgyr jnyy* va n enva fgbez naq gura Fnssl cnavp (be unir n oenvafgbez--fvapr gung frrzf gb eha va gur snzvyl) be jungrire naq onfu uvz ba gur urnq jnf fhpu na nagvpyvznk. Vg whfg znqr n irel qrcerffvat fgbel nyy gur zber qrcerffvat. Whavcre vf qevira znq jvgu tevrs orpnhfr ure fvfgref xvyy ure oblsevraq (Fnssl) naq uvqr gur obql (Crepl)...naq yrg ure oryvrir sbe gur erfg bs ure yvsr gung ur wvygrq ure.

★★★  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)


Joy said...

Hopping over from the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

That's such an interesting premise. It's too bad that the writing didn't quite hold up.

Laura said...

19 deaths in one book must be a record.

Bev Hankins said...

Laura: I keep track of these things for one of the challenges I do (Medical Examiner)...All the deaths must be of named people (so a group of people killed in a spy thriller (with a bomb or something) wouldn't count if the author didn't name them all, for example). Nineteen is close to the record (if not the record) for books I've read...but there are those in the challenge who must read high-count serial killer books because, they regularly rack up more than that per book.