If ever there was a novel in which a house plays the role of a character, this is it. The Distant Hours by Kate Morton is told in two strands, World War Two and the Nineties, involving the three Blythe sisters in Kent at Milderhurst Castle and a South London mother and daughter, Meredith and Edie. They all are connected by the war, the house, and the truth of what really happened when Juniper Blythe was abandoned by her lover in 1941.
This is a brick of a book [678 pages], like Morton’s other novels. A little too long for me, the story meanders at times through past and present until it works towards the final mystery. What a mystery, an ingenious storyline and an unpredictable final twist. The story starts when a letter arrives for Edie’s mother, a letter lost for decades, a letter dating from wartime when Meredith was a schoolgirl evacuated to Kent. Edie is fascinated by her mother’s history, but her mother does not talk of it. They are not close, and Edie feels unable to press for information. So she sets off to investigate on her own.
At the centre of the story is the house, and what a house it is: beautiful, crumbling, representative of a time past. When Edie visits the castle in 1992 for the first time, she thinks: ‘Have you ever wondered what the stretch of time smells like? I can’t say I had, not before I set foot inside Milderhurst Castle, but I certainly know now. Mould and ammonia, a pinch of lavender and a fair whack of dust, the mass disintegration of very old sheets of paper. And there’s something else, too, something underlying it all, something verging on rotten or stewed but not. It took me a while to work out what that smell was, but I think I know now. It’s the past.’ Living there, Edie finds the three Blythe sisters, alone after the death of their father.
Morton writes brilliantly about the war years, conjuring up life at this vast castle and in the village of the same name. Running throughout is a mysterious, ghostly, spooky thread based on Raymond Blythe’s best-selling book The True History of the Mud Man. ‘The moat has begun to breathe. Deep, deep, mired in the mud, the buried man’s heart kicks wetly.’ Is the book set at Milderhurst Castle? Is the Mud Man based on a true story? The book is yet another connection between Edie and the castle, she loved it as a child after being given a library copy when ill by her mother. And so the concentric circles tighten.
For more about Kate Morton’s books, visit her website.
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