Friday, February 6, 2015

Book Review - Kate Morton's The Distant Hours

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton
Published by: Atria
Publication Date: November 9th, 2010
Format: Hardcover, 576 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Edie Burchill has never had much of a connection with her mother, Meredith. They don't have a special bond or share the deepest secrets of their lives, in fact Edie hasn't told her mom yet that she and Jamie have split up months previously. Therefore it shouldn't come as a surprise that her mom has kept secrets from her as well. One of those secrets is that she was evacuated to Milderhurst Castle during WWII. There she was looked after by the Blythe sisters, the twins, Percy and Saffy, and their much younger sister Juniper, who was like a sister to Meredith. A long lost letter brings this one revelation of Meredith's past out into the open and Edie can't help but be fascinated.

After visiting a prospective author for the publishing company she works for, Edie gets lost on her way home and stumbles on Milderhurst Castle. It seems as if fate has brought her to these gates all these years after her mother entered them. She soon learns that all the sisters are still in residence, older, and in Juniper's case, insane. Juniper lost her mind the night her fiance jilted her in 1941. Edie also learns that the sisters are the daughters of Raymond Blythe, the author of The True History of the Mud Man, a classic and Edie's favorite book growing up. Astounded by all these coincidences Edie ventures into Milderhurst, not telling the siblings that she is Meredith's daughter. The secrets of the past start to unravel with Edie's arrival and the time has come for the truth to be told, especially about what really happened that stormy night in 1941.

I have come to the conclusion that Kate Morton is a writer that I love in theory but not in practice. I see these big doorstop novels about secrets and lies, where the truth about the past is teased out and revealed to us in the present and think, yes please, I'd like to read that. But expectation and reality have never met in this case of all of Morton's books save one, I did begrudgingly like The Secret Keeper to an extent. The problem is I keep thinking about what might have been, how things might have twisted and turned to make a tauter story, one that didn't leave me thinking a couple of hundred pages in why exactly was it that I picked up this book in the first place and then heroically pushing on to the finish. A finish that I have long ago seen coming.

My main problem I think is that all Morton's books seem to be slightly different stories told with the same building blocks. Older person who may be dying has secret that will change younger person's outlook on life. Commence the lugubrious ferreting out of the truth that has a fifty fifty chance of being hidden in a children's book and will definitely have a nice house in it, even if at this present time it's gone to rack and ruin. Peeling wallpaper, forgotten childhood memories, love where you least expect it. Sound familiar? It should if you've read any of Morton's books. Yes, the books tap into a common zeitgeist of wanting to look into our past and our ancestry to find answers to our lives, but there's only so many ways to tell this story and unless Morton starts to radically change her tune she will be stuck in this rut forever. I can oddly see her writing a book about her own predicament in fact...

Aside from constantly rewriting the same story in different ways The Distant Hours suffers not from comparison to Morton's other works but by the sheer bleakness of the story. This is not a happy story folks. This story will leave you a sad sack just thinking about wasted opportunities and how potential can just wither and die on the vine. Those poor Blythe sisters! I wonder if Morton set out to see just how Brontësque she could make her book with lost loves and ravaging fires and didn't pull back from the manuscript at any time and think, hey, maybe I should temper this Emily vibe I've got going with a little Charlotte? So while this book is Brontës to the max, it's just too depressing. Therefore, unless you've some masochistic desire to wallow in despair, just let me slap this book out of your hands right now.

Though in fairness, it isn't all unremitting horror and despair. We have Edie to counter that. Edie, the idiot. First I want to do a mini rant on the avatar of the reader in a book, so bare with. As readers, there is usually someone we connect to, someone who is our conduit into the narrative. A hero, heroine, antihero, whomever it is, it's someone to be our guide. Now the guide can be a little guileless, because, like them, we are coming into the story for the first time. We are just as clueless as they are, unless they are messing with us in the "unreliable narrator" trope, but that's a different kettle of fish. You, as the writer, want us, the reader, to be able to connect with your narrator and with your story. One way to guarantee that this will never happen is to have a self amused imbecile as our avatar. Writing her thoughts in a cutesy self referential way all the while showing herself to have a cranium full of nothing.

In fact, Edie's brainpan might be filled with less then nothing. Her head is a vacuum that sucks in information that promptly disappears forever. She is oblivious of the world around her. She has a totally unrealistic and fantastical job that only the true idiot heroine can get because she couldn't survive in the real world. Blindingly obvious deductions come as revelations to her hundreds of pages too late. And of course those hundreds of pages are filled with nothing but deathly boring prologue to the events of the evening of October 29th, 1941.

If it wasn't so obvious that Edie was an idiot I'd put down her lack of deductive reasoning to the plodding pace of the narrative, maybe she just fell asleep? In fact, sleeping might have been a better use of my time. As I finish my rant there's just so much in my brain that I want to scream at Morton, show don't tell, Mud Man, ugh, just no. Too many thoughts verses Edie's too few. But the final nail in the stupidity coffin for me was that somehow Edie got her hands on a first edition of Jane Eyre, retail about $50,000, and what does she do with this sacred book? She takes it on a coffee date!?! Excuse me!?! She did what? There's not hope for her. No more. Begone foul spirit!


Did you get the same feeling I did, that Juniper was the daughter of Saffy and Raymond?

I think that Saffy's relationship with her father was definitely horrific, manipulative, and usurious, but I don't think it ever went so far as to be incestuous.

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