I have a total love for complex stories that weave together history and books and a little bit of gothic mystery. I loved Possession by A.S. Byatt and The Archivist by Martha Cooley. So Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours is no different.
The story is set in England, London and Kent specifically, and centers around an old family home, a castle really, called Milderhurst. (Just the name conveys mystery and decay, which is perfect for the book.) It spans two time periods – a fairly contemporary season and the 1930s-40s when WWII was affecting life for everyone in England.
Edith Burchhill, who works for a publishing company, becomes intrigued when her mother receives a mysterious letter from her past and then does not want to talk about it. Combine that bit of intrigue with a book from her childhood and a chance to visit the mysterious castle in which that book’s author lived, and you have the makings of a subtle but engaging story of forbidden love, mental illness, maternal identity, and literary mystery. SO FUN.
Interweaving the Threads of Time and Family
Morton does a masterful job of spinning out various threads that we know, from the outset, are intertwined but aren’t sure what they are forming together. Her writing is beautiful and clear, and the story – while being absolutely engaging – is not full of massive highs and lows. Rather, it rests in the emotional and psychological tenor of each of the characters.
Morton leaps from time period to time period, story line to story line, point of view to point of view with fluidity and clarity. She builds this mystery by giving us pieces of the story from various characters perspectives (all told in third person), and we begin to understand that much is hidden simply by their silence, or by the obvious misguiding they do to us.
I will say that I felt the book a bit long in some places, maybe too drawn out in some of these threads. I wanted the book to be maybe 100 pages shorter. (It comes in at the true tome-like length of 562 pages.) But even when I didn’t find the elaborate spinning to be necessary, I was still committed to the story, mostly because I loved Edith and because I found the rest of the main characters (almost all women) to be absolutely fascinating.
A Writer’s Eye View
It can be immensely hard for a writer is to not only keep the facts and timelines of various storylines and characters straight, but when you add in that the reader isn’t to know certain things until certain points and then layer that with multiple time periods and points of view, it would be really simply for a writer to overlook something, overtell, or over simplify. But Morton does none of that. In fact, I can only imagine that she had a very elaborate system for tracking all of the story here, and I’d love to read about her process here.
As a writer, I took away the reminder that there is much to do behind the scenes of a book in order to carry off something complex and rich in both plot and characterization. I also noted Morton’s choices about how to signal the time period – simple section and chapter breaks with dates worked for the older settings, and then she simply used no date at all to signal the contemporary setting, which let me ally myself with Edith, the contemporary protagonist, and thus, with her search to solve the mystery of her mother’s letter. That was a simple by brilliant choice.
If you enjoy historical fiction, gothic novels, or richly dressed but not overly plotted stories, this is a great one for you. It’s also a good choice if you like literary mysteries, enjoy WWII novels that are about the culture of those not fighting, and if you enjoy stories where mental health are a central part of the book. A great novel, too, for studying how women can be depicted as individuals shaped by relationships with romantic partners but not defined by them and for looking at the ways family forms us, limits us, and gifts us forward. (My favorite story line here was the one with Edith and her mother for that very reason.)
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