The Distant Hours

I posted a while back about how much I was looking forward to reading Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours, so I thought that now I’d acquired a copy and read it I should probably review it. 🙂

Short version: this book is beautifully constructed and well written, with a central mystery that keeps its grip almost until the final pages, and a sense of homage to other works that doesn’t stop it being its own thing. I read it and loved it and recommend it.

Long version follows under the cut. I nitpick because I care.

The Distant Hours is the story of a young woman uncovering a mystery involving three sisters living together in a dilapidated castle, and the events that led up to a tragedy in 1941. The parallels with I Capture The Castle are obvious – the castle, the twice-married, difficult writer father, the close relationships between sisters disrupted by the arrival of a male stranger – but it’s also a very upmarket cousin to the kind of novel made famous by Barbara Erskine where a modern-day woman uncovers past secrets, and also a deliberate descendant of nineteenth-century Gothic novels and Daphne du Maurier.

The period detail is really well done. The central book-within-a-book, The True History of the Mud Man, written by the Blythe sisters’ father, feels absolutely believable as a work of the interwar years, with that difficult, almost parallel-universe sense of modernity that fantasies from those years often possess, and the evocation of place – of Mildenhurst Castle, but also of London, wartime and present – is astonishing. It’s also really well structured – the narrative hops around in viewpoint and time, but the central question of what happened that night in 1941 unfolds strongly and steadily. I did feel it was a little slow in places, but possibly that was because I was so involved in the plot that I really wanted to know what happened next.

I only have a couple of nitpicks. The first one is that I didn’t think the character of Juniper Blythe wholly worked. It’s going to sound like a backhanded compliment, and I’m sorry, but Kate Morton’s evocation of the two elder sisters and their flawed father is so sympathetic, delicate and precise that it made me notice all the more that Juniper wasn’t convincing me as a character. In much the same way as Shirley Keeldar, she stands at the centre of the book but doesn’t really fit there, either as the sort of fey, troubled heroine who would belong in a more two-dimensional treatment of the same material or as a realistic portrayal of a woman on the brink of mental illness.

The second nitpick I have is that I thought the tone faltered in the final pages – the very late and hurried hints of a romance for the 1990s narrator felt out of place, and the epilogue reminded me of the end of the 1940s movie of Wuthering Heights with its improbable skipping ghosts.

If you like time-slip novels or books from the 1930s bittersweet genre or well-constructed mysteries, I heartily recommend The Distant Hours.

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