The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

After enjoying one of Kate Morton’s previous novels, The Forgotten Garden, which I read a couple of years ago, I was looking forward to reading this one until I saw that it was getting such mixed reviews. I decided I still wanted to give it a chance, but now that I’ve read it I can understand the problems other people have had with it.

The Distant Hours is narrated by Edie Burchill, whose mother Meredith was evacuated to Milderhurst Castle during World War II. Edie is fascinated by this because her favourite childhood book, The True History of the Mud Man, was written by Raymond Blythe, the owner of Milderhurst Castle. Yet for some reason her mother doesn’t like talking about what happened during the time of her evacuation or her relationship with Blythe’s three daughters, the twins Persephone (Percy) and Seraphina (Saffy) and their younger sister, Juniper.

When Edie, who works in publishing, is asked to write the introduction for a new edition of The True History of the Mud Man, she is given the opportunity to get to know the Blythe sisters who are now elderly women and are still living together at Milderhurst. As Edie begins her quest to discover what inspired Raymond Blythe’s famous story, she also starts to uncover the secrets her mother has been keeping for the last fifty years.

The story moves back and forth between Edie in the 1990s and Meredith and the Blythe sisters in the 1940s. What happened to Juniper’s fiancé who mysteriously disappeared on his way to visit her one night in 1941? What were the true origins of The Mud Man? Why have the three sisters never left Milderhurst Castle? Kate Morton keeps us wondering about the answers to these questions for hundreds of pages, revealing the truth very gradually, and although I was able to correctly guess at some of the story’s secrets, there were others that weren’t so easy to figure out.

The Distant Hours does have a lot of the things I usually love in a book: an ancient castle in the countryside, a literary mystery, lots of gothic elements. Unfortunately the setting, which could have been wonderfully atmospheric, never really came to life for me. Even the sections of the book that took place during World War II lacked the atmosphere I would have expected from a wartime setting. And so much was made of Raymond Blythe’s The True History of the Mud Man, there were times when I couldn’t help wishing Kate Morton had just written that story instead of this one!

There seems to have been a huge increase in the last few years in the number of books with dual timeframes in which a modern day character uncovers a family secret from the past, and to be honest I think I’m getting bored with books of this type in general. I’ve read a lot of them recently and this one didn’t offer anything very new or original. The main problem I had with this book though was the length. I don’t mind reading long books if the story is compelling enough to keep me interested, but the plot was too slow and meandering and I really think this book could easily have been at least 100 pages shorter. There were too many sections that felt repetitive and too many chapters that did nothing to move the plot forward at all.

I didn’t think The Distant Hours was a terrible book – just a bit disappointing and not really worth the time it took to read it. To those of you who’ve read all three of Kate Morton’s books, do you think it’s still worth me reading The House at Riverton?

17 thoughts on “The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

  1. Sue says:

    Helen I know exactly what you mean about the number of books written in two timeframes. I have just finished Old Filth (failed in London, try Hong Kong) for the second time – a story about one of the children of the Raj. Time flashes backwards and forwards but the writing is so wonderful (Jane Gardam) that the chapters don’t need headings to point you in the right direction – you just always know exactly where you are.

  2. Jo says:

    I think you should read Riverton because it was very good, and I think much better than this one.

    I agree with everything you have said it was too long, but I do enjoy a book with dual time frames and normally I think this is something which Morton is very good. I think the publisher pushed the author for another book and did not consider it fully enough before publication.

    • Helen says:

      I don’t dislike dual time frame books – I think I’ve just read too many of them recently! I’m glad to hear you’d still recommend The House at Riverton.

  3. lubylou12 says:

    I can’t recommend The House At Riverton enough, please don’t let this one put you off. I’ve read all her books, reading The Distant Hours last and like you I didn’t think it was the worst thing ever but I was very disappointed.

    I thought it must just be me but then I’ve read so many more reviews with similar opinions. I don’t mind time frames that switch back and forth and it usually works for Morton but I just found it tedious in this book. The present was far less interesting in the past and I groaned every time we went back to the present day. Hope her next book is better.

  4. Anbolyn says:

    Yes! Read The House at Riverton – it is really splendid. I JUST bought The Distant Hours at my library’s book sale, but now I’m not sure if I want to read it. Life’s too short to read disappointing books. Maybe I will donate it back to them 🙂

  5. Mel says:

    Agreed! I do think I will read the House at Riverton some time this year, even though my experience with The Distant Hours was very much like your experience.

  6. Elena says:

    I really liked The House at Riverton (although I think it is a plagiarism of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin) so I bought The Secret Garden last year and couldn’t read more than 50 pages. The thing is I really wanted to read it and like it, but it was impossible for me. Then I discovered “The Distant Hours” and… did not even felt attracted to the plot. I think Morton may have lost it for me!

      • Elena says:

        Well, Morton echoes Atwood in a lot of aspects and having read both, I preferred Atwood (much complex) but Morton’s was a good, light reading. That is why I felt attracted to her works, because they sounded perfect to read on a busy, stressful day when you know you won’t focus too much on what you’re reading. Kind of a quality-best-seller like 🙂

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