This is the perfect holiday read. It’s thick, has the author’s name in big gold letters, a beautiful picture of a garden on it and “The Number One Bestseller” written at the top of the book.
I have read Kate Morton‘s previous novels, ‘The Forgotten Garden‘ and ‘The House at Riverton‘, and enjoyed both of them in a Richard and Judy sort of way. This one is as enjoyable and kept me awake late last night because I wanted to finish it (I didn’t in the end, but I got to the end of part three, at least). All her books so far have a slightly eerie setting, so there’s always a frisson of foreboding when reading them, which is what prevents me from stopping reading at a sensible hour.
This time the setting is a castle in the English countryside – Milderhurst Castle – a wonderfully described old, decaying home with dark passages and hidden rooms. I almost expected a dead body to pop out of a cupboard. Well, a few come to light at the end of the book, but not in a ghostly way. And, as is fitting, three eccentric sisters live there, the elderly Blythe sisters, one of whom is gently mad. Best of all to me were their names – Persephone (Percy), Seraphina (Saffy) and Juniper. Oh, I love those names. Women called that can only be English and eccentric. Percy and Saffy have lived there all their lives and now look after Juniper, who really is pretty weird.
The book is written from the view point of Edie Burchill, whose mother receives a long-lost letter in the post and reacts emotionally to it, quite unlike her usual character. The return address on the envelope is Milderhurst Castle. Edie and her mother have never been close, and the letter lights a curiousity in Edie, who suspects that her mother has a past that has more to it than she has let on.
Edie discovers that her mother, Meredith, had been a child evacuee from London in World War Two and that she was chosen by Juniper Blythe to go and live at Milderhurst Castle. Meredith, who had always felt like an outsider in her family, instantly felt at home within the Blythe family. The three sisters welcomed her into the house, she and Juniper became best friends and, best of all, they all loved books. The sisters’ father, Raymond Blythe, had gone mildly insane and lived at the top of the castle, rarely to be seen. He had written a bestseller when he was younger, called ‘The True History of the Mud Man’, which, from the few excerpts of it in the book, would have made a terrifyingly frightening gothic read.
In between the sections in Edie’s voice, there are parts set in 1941 when the Blythe girls were in their late teens and early twenties. Their father has died, but has left his possessive hold over them as tight as ever, so much so that they find it difficult to leave the castle at all. Percy comes into her own during the war, applying her practical skills. Saffy does things like sewing for the war effort, but secretly longs to escape Milderhurst to go and live in London. And Juniper does eventually escape – just by walking to the end of the garden and onto a train – and meets up with Meredith in London.
In London, Juniper falls in love with Thomas Cavill. And here lies the nub. Her father left the castle to Juniper in his will, but should she marry, the castle would go to the National Trust (you wonder what sort of bastard he was). And so the story develops and I can’t say more because I would start giving too much away.
Edie’s voice irritated me in the beginning, because it was a bit jolly hockey sticks, but as soon as I became involved in the plot, it didn’t bother me too much. The sisters fascinated me, although I didn’t quite get why Juniper was so universally adored. Morton writes about relationships well, especially that between Edie and her mother, which grows from a prickly, distant one to a closer, more understanding love.
Kate Morton has created an intricate plot in ‘The Distant Hours’ and, because of that, it makes a thoroughly enjoyable read for a long weekend or lazy days on the beach in December.