The Distant Hours
Review by Jamie Adams
My latest book love-affair began in a second-hand store. I love browsing the titles there and bringing home as many as I can carry back, tucked in a paper bag of treasure. It was on such a trip that I pulled Kate Morton’s “The Distant Hours” off the shelf, and at once began to explore its pages.
The jacket reads, “Edie is an only child of respectable if dull parents who, when she was growing up, did little to nurture her natural love of words or mystery. But now, a letter that should have been delivered fifty years earlier arrives for her mother and sends Edie on a journey into the past. It takes her to Milderhurst Castle, a great but moldering old house in Kent, where the Blythe spinsters live and where, she discovers, her mother was billeted as a thirteen-year-old child during World War II. The elder Blythe sisters are twins and have spent most of their lives looking after the third and youngest sister, Juniper, who hasn’t been the same since her fiancé jilted her in 1941. Inside the decaying castle, Edie begins to unravel her mother’s past. But there are other secrets hidden in the stones of Milderhurst. The truth of what happened in “the distant hours” of the past has been waiting a long time for someone to find it.”
The opening pages begin with something that seems very much like a fairytale, and it’s not until a short ways in that the reader understands this is only the prelude to a saga sweeping over seven decades. It is quite fitting that the true story begins with a book and a letter. Much of it is narrated by Edie Burchill, a young woman who in many ways is somewhat removed from the tale itself, more chronicler than participant, even as what she uncovers reveals secrets about those closest to her.
“The Distant Hours” slowly spins a web, more intricate at every layer, around the reader, shrouding them in mystery and a sense of a past that won’t quite come together. Morton’s book deals with a history as complicated and entangled as any ever could be, and her pacing reflects this. She takes the reader from present to past in smooth, swaying transitions, revealing at once from the end and the beginning, both, the central events upon which the story hinges. Her characters are vibrant, all the more alive for the stark clarity with which they are depicted, and in her words the mildewed walls of the castle rise around the reader as if pressing in on the mind as much as they do on the characters.
Divided into interchanging past and present, it is time that reveals the characters for who they truly are. Each one – Edie’s quiet, private Mum and not-quite-peacefully retired Dad, her colorful Auntie Rita, and others in the modern day form their own disharmonized union, intertwined in the most unexpected of ways with the Blythe sisters – sharp and spare Percy, ambitious Saffy, and wild Juniper, along with a host of faces and stories, meeting and departing again throughout many years.
It isn’t sufficient to say The Distant Hours has a “twist ending” or anything else so neatly packaged. Each piece of the story that’s revealed casts all other pieces into confusion, but never so much so that the reader is lost or left empty-handed. There are just enough threads to entice, but also a sense that to tug on one thread will unravel a story that might come at high cost. Indeed, by the end of “The Distant Hours”, the reader is given a full accounting of the exact price at which history is preserved and protected, and honor is upheld. Morton’s story is exquisite in its revelation of history, familial upheaval and change, and the secrets that haunt the castle walls.
In a story where even the most innocent detail may later become the tipping point to an entirely unpredictable outcome, Morton leaves no person or event without reason, but plenty without satisfaction. I highly recommend this both haunting and beautiful novel, but be forewarned – family honor, buried secrets, and stories that were never meant to see the daylight abide between its pages. Be ready to take the journey, because even after you close the cover, the story won’t let you go. When the book is at last complete, you may find yourself a bit lost, emerging from the pages still hearing echoes of “walls that sing the distant hours”.