Review: Kate Morton's "The Distant Hours"

By Bethanne Patrick
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 12:05 AM


By Kate Morton

Atria. 562 pp. $26

Kate Morton writes gothic-inspired novels about grand British houses of yesteryear: "The House at Riverton" chronicled a servant's-eye view of the Edwardian era, while "The Forgotten Garden" carried a colonial orphan's dreams backward and forward over a century. Now, in "The Distant Hours," Morton turns to her largest house yet, an actual castle - and it's crumbling. Can the symbolism get any more obvious?

Actually, in Morton's hands, it's not obvious at all. "The Distant Hours" demonstrates a new leap in Morton's authorial choreography. Although the novel would have benefited from some judicious cuts, its multiple story lines intersect in a satisfying conclusion that will leave no reader feeling cheated.

In 1990s London, single and self-sufficient book editor Edie Burchill reads an old letter from someone at Milderhurst Castle that intrigues her but shocks her quite ordinary mother. She then receives an assignment to write an introduction to "The True History of the Mud Man," a children's classic by Raymond Blythe, who lived at Milderhurst. Since Edie works for a press so small that she can do whatever she likes (her boss is the only other employee, and he seems more occupied with tea trays than contracts), her decision to wander off to the castle is not particularly odd.

But the trio of women Edie meets at Milderhurst are: Blythe's daughters, elderly twins Persephone and Seraphina and their much-younger half-sibling, Juniper. And there are mysteries in abundance: Juniper may or may not be "mad," Persephone may or may not be in love, and Edie's mother may or may not share a strange secret with a local teacher named Thomas Cavill.

Much of the past action takes place in and around 1941, when Edie's mother was an adolescent war refugee from London. While the stories take time to coalesce, Morton sustains an atmosphere of quiet dread rivaling that developed by Sarah Waters in "The Little Stranger":

"They sat together on the end of the chaise longue and waited. Fire crackled in the grate, wind scurried along the stones, and rain lashed the windows. It felt as if a hundred years had passed. . . . The room settled around their absence; the stones began to whisper. The loose shutter fell off its hinge, but nobody saw it slip."

By the time Edie unravels the sad truth within the castle, it is too late for some - no surprise in a Gothic tale - but not too late for others. The revelations involving these characters' "distant hours" make this a rich treat for fans of historical fiction.

Patrick is a freelance critic and author who lives in Arlington. You can follow her on Twitter @TheBookMaven.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company