This was supposed to be a bookish blog, a forum for me to record my thoughts on what I’m reading and make wry insider observations about the goings-on in the book world – never mind my lack of insider knowledge in this area. It was supposed to be, dare I say it, a literary blog – not some sort of cat-adulation forum. Despite my best intentions, though, it seems to have become dominated by anecdotes about the cat: in much the same way that this pesky feline has come to intrude into my morning sleep-ins and civilised dinners with friends, she has decided to stick her paw into my foray into the blogging world too. Well, enough is enough, I say – this has to end.
I’ve therefore formed a new resolution: to write more book reviews. A plethora of book reviews. Nothing but book reviews for the next month at least. And I’m not going to edit them either : each piece will get a cursory glance-over once I’m finished, but there’ll be no more of this meticulous drafting and redrafting, then leaving for a day just to see how it reads after the effects of that third glass of wine have worn off. We’ll have more spelling errors and typos, more slipshod syntax, more vital words accidentally left out in my eagerness to get my ideas down (Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap was a (key word omitted) book’. Factually accurate, yes – but what was it she meant to say, wonders the intrigued reader. Remarkable? Contemptible? Thick?) There’ll be more spontaneity, dammit – more of that raw, amateurish feel that supposedly distinguishes blogs from Victorian novels. The cat won’t like it, but she can just go and chase a bird or something .
So, The Distant Hours: this was the first Kate Morton novel I’ve read. I didn’t expect to like her – most of the reviews I’ve read have made her sound frivolous and sensationalist, but I have to admit that I’m hooked, enamoured. I can’t wait to read her other novels, but at the same time am reluctant to, because then they’ll no longer be there to anticipate, no longer a pleasure shored up for the future.
I read this book in the way I used to read books when I was a child: rapt, transported, carried away by the sheer force of the narrative. I gobbled down mouthfuls whenever I could: during my lunch-break, on the bus on the way to work, while I queued up for my coffee in the morning. And when I wasn’t reading, I was constantly thinking about what would happen next, incapable of carrying on any semblance of a normal conversation. I must have been quite boring to be around. (The cat, who is sitting beside me on the desk as I type this, confirms that indeed I was.)
The novel is about Edie Burchell, an editor for a small publishing company in London who has recently split up from the man everyone expected her to marry. Edie is visiting her parents for a Sunday dinner when a letter arrives addressed to her mother, Meredith, sent some fifty years before and delayed by the war. Her usually self-contained and undemonstrative mother breaks down when she reads the contents. It’s from Milderhurst Castle, she reveals, a place she was billeted to during the war. She says little more about it and Edie doesn’t press – their family has never been big on sharing things – but Edie is intrigued, and knows there’s more to the story than her mother has let on.
Shortly after, when Edie is driving to meet a client in the country, she chances across a sign to Milderhurst Castle and decides to drive by it. Standing at the gates, she realises that she has visited there before – a fact which her mother adamantly denies when she raises this with her later. She learns in the village that the castle is the ancestral home of the author, Raymond Blythe, and that his three aged daughters still live there and occasionally allow visitors.
Blythe’s gothic novel, The True History of the Mud Man, was a childhood favourite of Edie’s, telling of a sinister, almost chthonic, golem-like figure who creeps out of the mire of a castle moat: ‘the Stygian, slippery figure emerging from the lake to claim the girl in the attic window.’ (p54). So, on a whim, Edie takes a room in a local bed and breakfast and arranges for a tour of the castle the following day.
There she meets the antiquated ‘sisters Blythe’ (‘the ‘sisters’ jumped in front of the ‘Blythe’, like the Brothers Grimm, and there was little I could do to stop it’ (p37), bound together at the castle by a cruel and unnatural bequest in their father’s will. Edie chooses not to reveal her mother’s connection to the castle, but has a disturbing encounter with Juniper, the youngest of the sisters, dressed in a girlish pink gown from fifty years ago, who refers to her as ‘Meredith’ and confesses that she has done a terrible thing.
And so the mystery deepens. Over the following months, Edie becomes caught up – enchanted – by the enigmatic Blythe sisters, gradually learning more about Juniper’s descent into madness after being seemingly jilted by her fiancée; the charming Saffy’s fruitless attempts to break free of the castle’s clutches; and the stern, repressive Percy, whose fierce devotion to the castle seems to shield some dark and sinister secret. Edie also discovers surprising things about her mother, and initially has difficulty reconciling the passionate, bookish girl who takes shape beneath her research with the distant, pragmatic maternal figure she has grown up with. As Edie becomes more immersed in the world of Milderhurst and its inhabitants, a series of perplexing questions come to light: what are the mysterious origins of the mud man? What really happened to Juniper’s fiancée? And how is her mother involved with it all?
The first thing that struck me about this novel was how tightly it was crafted. There was not a single extraneous event, a feat made even more impressive by the non-chronological structure of the text, with episodes from the past and present continually jigsawed together. The action continued right up to the final page, with a series of devastating revelations unveiled, each with impeccable timing. The story never became mired down, but instead constantly pressed on towards its conclusion, and at the end, everything was satisfactorily explained, and all the loose ends tied up, although not in a trite or predictable way. This made the novel extremely satisfying, in the way that only a perfectly planned novel can be.
It was passionate as well, though. So often, well-structured novels are dry, cerebral, robotic things, with the intricate plot coming at the expense of characters and emotion, but this was lush and sprawling and fervid. Morton writes beautifully, and is particularly good at creating atmosphere through rhythm and imagery: ‘Gristly knuckles balled as she fidgeted with a match, finally bringing it to life; in the flame’s light I glimpsed her face and I saw there proof that she was shaken by the morning’s events… the sweet, smoky smell of fresh tobacco mushroomed around us’ (p399). The castle in particular, is described so vividly that it almost operates as a character as well as a setting: ‘I shivered, overcome by a sudden and pressing image of the house as a giant, crouching creature. A dark and nameless beast, holding its breath; the big old toad of a fairytale, waiting to trick a maiden into kissing him’ (p54).
Morton treads a fine line with the names of her characters, the romantic settings, the strings of coincidences in the plot and her use of pathetic fallacy. There is the constant threat that the story could at any moment descend into melodrama, and yet it never does. In this sense, the novel is stylistically similar to Barbara Vine’s work or the novels of Sarah Waters set in the 20th century – slightly gothic but with a sharp modern sensibility. There’s more than a little Jane Eyre there too – a book referenced a number of times during the novel.
This is appropriate, because The Distant Hours is very much a book for book-lovers. It is absolutely steeped in literature; filled with characters who write stories, read stories, decipher stories, and turn their lives into stories and vice versa. This passion for books is exemplified in Edie’s description of her first encounter with The Mud Man: ‘All true readers have a book, a moment like the one I describe, and when Mum offered me that much-read library copy, mine was upon me. For although I didn’t know it then, after falling deep inside the world of The Mud Man, real life was never going to be able to compete with fiction again.’ (p19). I loved the plot strand involving Edie’s investigations into the genesis of The Mud Man novel, which perfectly demonstrates the way literature and biography can intersect, and the strange, almost mythic, resonance novels gain from this transformation of the real to the imaginary. The first few pages of Raymond Blythe’s fictitious novel comprise the prologue to The Distant Hours and the only thing I regretted after finishing this book was that The True History of the Mud Man doesn’t exist in the real world. It very easily could – Morton fleshes it out so convincingly, in the opening pages adopting a plangent, poetic voice infused with both quiet menace and beauty, a haunting presence that underpins the rest of the novel – almost like the eponymous ‘little friend’ in Sarah Water’s latest book. Psychologically, The Mud Man rings true – the horrifying personal inspiration for the novel is satisfyingly explained by Morton, but, it could as easily be read, as it initially is, as a rich cultural metaphor for soldiers returning home from the muddy battlefields of the Great War.
The past is important in this book, and another area where Morton shines is in her continual parallelling of the past and present. In the novel there is a consciousness of the legacy a person leaves behind them, whether it be a house, a book, or another person whose life they have affected. There is also a consciousness of the way people change over time yet are still fundamentally the same person – an idea demonstrated most palpably in the character of Meredith, who at the end of the novel, again starts to resemble the passionate writer with the unique, clear-sighted vision of the world that she was in her younger days.
Edie develops a closer relationship with her mother through learning about her childhood, and one of the main themes in the novel is how healing can result from unravelling the mysteries of the past. Mystery and secrecy are one of Morton’s key motifs, and I particularly enjoyed the way this book was preoccupied with the hidden parts of people’s lives. Everybody in this book had secrets, and no-one was as they initially seemed to be. Multiple narrators are used throughout the novel, yet Morton – a master of the opaque statement, the omitted detail – never allowed her characters to give their secrets away while telling their own stories. The one exception to the secrets rule was Edie, who as a result, at first seemed a little transparent in comparison with the other characters. However, you quickly realised that her role in the book was to interpret, unravel the mysteries of the past and restore order – and interestingly, she is the one character whose situation is unresolved at the end of the book. She is about to move into a new role at work, we have hints that a fresh romance awaits her, yet we still know very little about the relationship which had finished just before the story begun. Her life is not contained within the pages of the novel, but continues to press out at either side. This, along with the haunting resonance of The Mud Man, stops the book being altogether too neat and gives a sense of the story continuing to unfurl afterwards.
What I really loved about this book, however – and a mini-spoiler alert here – was how everyone in it is actually better than we first thought. We initially believe the worst of then – not our fault, though – we are lead to think that way – but by the end of it they are all wonderfully redeemed. This alone makes the book worthwhile.
Anyway, enough raving about the book. Do read it though – I’m convinced you’ll love it (she says with the easy assurance of someone with no idea at all who they’re addressing.)
And if I still haven’t convinced you, here’s the UK webtrailer…