The #1 internationally bestselling author of The Forgotten Garden mesmerizes readers with a haunting tale of long-buried secrets and the twists of fate that can alter lives forever.
This enthralling romantic thriller pays homage to the classics of gothic fiction, spinning a rich and intricate web of mystery, suspense, and lost love.
It starts with a letter, lost for half a century and unexpectedly delivered to Edie’s mother on a Sunday afternoon. The letter leads Edie to Milderhurst Castle, where the eccentric Blythe spinsters live and where, she discovers, her mother was billeted during World War II. The elder Blythe sisters are twins and have spent most of their lives caring for their younger sister, Juniper, who hasn’t been the same since her fiancé jilted her in 1941. Inside the decaying castle, Edie searches for her mother’s past but soon learns there are other secrets hidden in its walls. The truth of what happened in “the distant hours” has been waiting a long time for someone to find it.
|Publisher:||Washington Square Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.70(d)|
About the Author
Kate Morton is the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of The House at Riverton, The Forgotten Garden, The Distant Hours, The Secret Keeper, The Lake House, and The Clockmaker’s Daughter. Her books are published in 34 languages and have been #1 bestsellers worldwide. She is a native Australian, holds degrees in dramatic art and English literature. She lives with her family in London and Australia.
Read an Excerpt
Hush … Can you hear him?
The trees can. They are the first to know that he is coming.
Listen! The trees of the deep, dark wood, shivering and jittering their leaves like papery hulls of beaten silver; the sly wind, snaking through their tops, whispering that soon it will begin.
The trees know, for they are old and they have seen it all before.
It is moonless.
It is moonless when the Mud Man comes. The night has slipped on a pair of fine, leather gloves, shaken a black sheet across the land: a ruse, a disguise, a sleeping spell, so that all beneath it slumbers sweet.
Darkness, but not only, for there are nuances and degrees and textures to all things. Look: the rough woolliness of the huddled woods; the quilted stretch of fields; the smooth molasses moat. And yet … Unless you are very unlucky, you won’t have noticed that something moved where it should not. You are fortunate indeed. For there are none who see the Mud Man rise and live to tell the tale.
There—see? The sleek black moat, the mud-soaked moat, lies flat no longer. A bubble has appeared, there in the widest stretch, a heaving bubble, a quiver of tiny ripples, a suggestion—
But you have looked away! And you were wise to do so. Such sights are not for the likes of you. We will turn our attention instead to the castle, for that way also something stirs.
High up in the tower.
Watch and you will see.
A young girl tosses back her covers.
She has been put to bed hours before; in a nearby chamber her nurse snores softly, dreaming of soap and lilies and tall glasses of warm fresh milk. But something has woken the girl; she sits up furtively, sidles across the clean white sheet, and places her feet, one beside the other, two pale, narrow blocks, on the wooden floor.
There is no moon to look at or to see by, and yet she is drawn to the window. The stippled glass is cold; she can feel the night-frosted air shimmering as she climbs atop the bookcase, sits above the row of discarded childhood favorites, victims of her rush to grow up and away. She tucks her nightdress round the tops of her pale legs and rests her cheek in the cup where one white knee meets the other.
The world is out there, people moving about in it like clockwork dolls.
Someday soon she plans to see it for herself; for this castle might have locks on all the doors and bars against the windows, but that is to keep the other thing out and not to keep her in.
The other thing.
She has heard stories about him. He is a story. A tale from long ago, the bars and locks vestiges of a time when people believed such things. Rumors about monsters in moats who lay in wait to prey upon fair maidens. A man to whom an ancient wrong was done, who seeks revenge against his loss, time and time again.
But the young girl—who would frown to hear herself described that way—is no longer bothered by childhood monsters and fairy tales. She is restless; she is modern and grown-up and hungers for escape. This window, this castle, has ceased to be enough, and yet for the time being it is all she has and thus she gazes glumly through the glass.
Out there, beyond, in the folded crease between the hills, the village is falling to drowsy sleep. A dull and distant train, the last of the night, signals its arrival: a lonely call that goes unanswered, and the porter in a stiff cloth hat stumbles out to raise the signal. In the nearby woods, a poacher eyes his shot and dreams of getting home to bed, while on the outskirts of the village, in a cottage with peeling paint, a newborn baby cries.
Perfectly ordinary events in a world where all makes sense. Where things are seen when they are there, missed when they are not. A world quite unlike the one in which the girl has woken to find herself.
For down below, nearer than the girl has thought to look, something is happening.
The moat has begun to breathe. Deep, deep, mired in the mud, the buried man’s heart kicks wetly. A low noise, like the moaning wind but not, rises from the depths and hovers tensely above the surface. The girl hears it, that is, she feels it, for the castle foundations are married to the mud, and the moan seeps through the stones, up the walls, one story after another, imperceptibly through the bookcase on which she sits. A once-beloved tale tumbles to the floor and the girl in the tower gasps.
The Mud Man opens an eye. Sharp, sudden, tracks it back and forth. Is he thinking, even now, of his lost family? The pretty little wife and the pair of plump, milky babes he left behind? Or have his thoughts cast further back to the days of boyhood, when he ran with his brother across fields of long pale stems? Or are his thoughts, perhaps, of the other woman, the one who loved him before his death? Whose flattery and attentions and refusal to be refused cost the Mud Man everything—
Something changes. The girl senses it and shivers. Presses her hand to the icy window and leaves a starry print within the condensation. The witching hour is upon her, though she does not know to call it that. There is no one left to help her now. The train is gone, the poacher lies beside his wife, even the baby sleeps, having given up trying to tell the world all that it knows. At the castle the girl in the window is the only one awake; her nurse has stopped snoring and her breaths are so light now that one might think her frozen; the birds in the castle wood are silent too, heads tucked beneath their shivering fenders, eyes sealed in thin gray lines against the thing they know is coming.
The girl is the only one, and the man, waking in the mud. His heart splurting; faster now, for his time has come and it will not last long. He rolls his wrists, his ankles, he launches from the muddy bed.
Don’t watch. I beg you, look away as he breaks the surface, as he clambers from the moat, as he stands on the black, drenched banks, raises his arms, and inhales. Remembers how it is to breathe, to love, to ache.
Look instead at the storm clouds. Even in the dark you can see them coming. A rumble of angry, fisted clouds, rolling, fighting, until they are right above the tower. Does the Mud Man bring the storm, or does the storm bring the Mud Man? Nobody knows.
In her bower, the girl inclines her head as the first reluctant drops splatter against the pane and meet her hand. The day has been fine, not too hot; the evening cool. No talk of midnight rain. The following morning, people will greet the sodden earth with surprise, scratch their heads, and smile at one another and say, What a thing! To think we slept right through it!
But look! What’s that?—A shape, a mass, is climbing up the tower wall. The figure climbs quickly, ably, impossibly. For no man, surely, can achieve such a feat?
He arrives at the girl’s window. They are face-to-face. She sees him through the streaky glass, through the rain—now pounding; a mudded, monstrous creature. She opens her mouth to scream, to cry for help, but in that very moment, everything changes.
Before her eyes, he changes. She sees through the layers of mud, through the generations of darkness and rage and sorrow, to the human face beneath. A young man’s face. A forgotten face. A face of such longing and sadness and beauty; and she reaches, unthinking, to unlock the window. To bring him in from the rain.
Raymond Blythe, The True History of the Mud Man, Prologue
© 2010 KATE MORTON
A LOST LETTER FINDS ITS WAY
IT started with a letter. A letter that had been lost a long time, waiting out half a century in a forgotten postal bag in the dim attic of a nondescript house in Bermondsey. I think about it sometimes, that mailbag: of the hundreds of love letters, grocery bills, birthday cards, notes from children to their parents, that lay together, swelling and sighing as their thwarted messages whispered in the dark. Waiting, waiting, for someone to realize they were there. For it is said, you know, that a letter will always seek a reader; that sooner or later, like it or not, words have a way of finding the light, of making their secrets known.
Forgive me, I’m being romantic—a habit acquired from the years spent reading nineteenth-century novels with a torch when my parents thought I was asleep. What I mean to say is that it’s odd to think that if Arthur Tyrell had been a little more responsible, if he hadn’t had one too many rum toddies that Christmas Eve in 1941 and gone home and fallen into a drunken slumber instead of finishing his mail delivery, if the bag hadn’t then been tucked in his attic and hidden until his death some fifty years later when one of his daughters unearthed it and called the Daily Mail, the whole thing might have turned out differently. For my mum, for me, and especially for Juniper Blythe.
You probably read about it when it happened; it was in all the newspapers and on the TV news. Channel 4 even ran a special where they invited some of the recipients to talk about their letter, their particular voice from the past that had come back to surprise them. There was a woman whose sweetheart had been in the RAF, and the man with the birthday card his evacuated son had sent, the little boy who was killed by a piece of falling shrapnel a week or so later. It was a very good program, I thought: moving in parts, happy and sad stories interspersed with old footage of the war. I cried a couple of times, but that’s not saying much: I’m rather disposed to weep.
Mum didn’t go on the show, though. The producers contacted her and asked whether there was anything special in her letter that she’d like to share with the nation, but she said no, that it was just an ordinary old clothing order from a shop that had long ago gone out of business. But that wasn’t the truth. I know this because I was there when the letter arrived. I saw her reaction to that lost letter and it was anything but ordinary.
It was a morning in late February, winter still had us by the throat, the flower beds were icy, and I’d come over to help with the Sunday roast. I do that sometimes because my parents like it, even though I’m a vegetarian and I know that at some point during the course of the meal my mother will start to look worried, then agonized, until finally she can stand it no longer and statistics about protein and anemia will begin to fly.
I was peeling potatoes in the sink when the letter dropped through the slot in the door. The mail doesn’t usually come on Sundays so that should have tipped us off, but it didn’t. For my part, I was too busy wondering how I was going to tell my parents that Jamie and I had broken up. It had been two months since it happened and I knew I had to say something eventually, but the longer I took to utter the words, the more calcified they became. And I had my reasons for staying silent: my parents had been suspicious of Jamie from the start, they didn’t take kindly to upsets, and Mum would worry even more than usual if she knew that I was living in the flat alone. Most of all, though, I was dreading the inevitable, awkward conversation that would follow my announcement. To see first bewilderment, then alarm, then resignation cross Mum’s face as she realized the maternal code required her to provide some sort of consolation … But back to the mail. The sound of something dropping softly through the letter box.
“Edie, can you get that?”
This was my mother. (Edie is me; I’m sorry, I should have said so earlier.) She nodded towards the hallway and gestured with the hand that wasn’t stuck up the inside of the chicken.
I put down the potato, wiped my hands on a tea towel, and went to fetch the post. There was only one letter lying on the welcome mat: an official post office envelope declaring the contents to be “redirected mail.” I read the label to Mum as I brought it into the kitchen.
She’d finished stuffing the chicken by then and was drying her own hands. Frowning a little, from habit rather than any particular expectation, she took the letter from me and plucked her reading glasses from on top of the pineapple in the fruit bowl. She skimmed the post office notice and with a flicker of her eyebrows began to open the outer envelope.
I’d turned back to the potatoes by now, a task that was arguably more engaging than watching my mum open mail, so I’m sorry to say I didn’t see her face as she fished the smaller envelope from inside, as she registered the frail austerity paper and the old stamp, as she turned the letter over and read the name written on the back. I’ve imagined it many times since, though, the color draining instantly from her cheeks, her fingers beginning to tremble so that it took minutes before she was able to slit the envelope open.
What I don’t have to imagine is the sound. The horrid, guttural gasp, followed quickly by a series of rasping sobs that swamped the air and made me slip with the peeler so that I cut my finger.
“Mum?” I went to her, draping my arm around her shoulders, careful not to bleed on her dress. But she didn’t say anything. She couldn’t, she told me later, not then. She stood rigidly as tears spilled down her cheeks and she clutched the strange little envelope, its paper so thin I could make out the corner of the folded letter inside, hard against her bosom. Then she disappeared upstairs to her bedroom leaving a fraying wake of instructions about the bird and the oven and the potatoes.
The kitchen settled in a bruised silence around her absence and I stayed very quiet, moved very slowly so as not to disturb it further. My mother is not a crier, but this moment—her upset and the shock of it—felt oddly familiar, as if we’d been here before. After fifteen minutes in which I variously peeled potatoes, turned over possibilities as to whom the letter might be from, and wondered how to proceed, I finally knocked on her door and asked whether she’d like a cup of tea. She’d composed herself by then and we sat opposite one another at the small Formica-covered table in the kitchen. As I pretended not to notice she’d been crying, she began to talk about the envelope’s contents.
“A letter,” she said, “from someone I used to know a long time ago. When I was just a girl, twelve, thirteen.”
A picture came into my mind, a hazy memory of a photograph that had sat on my gran’s bedside when she was old and dying. Three children, the youngest of whom was my mum, a girl with short dark hair, perched on something in the foreground. It was odd; I’d sat with Gran a hundred times or more but I couldn’t bring that girl’s features into focus now. Perhaps children are never really interested in who their parents were before they were born; not unless something particular happens to shine a light on the past. I sipped my tea, waiting for Mum to continue.
“I don’t know that I’ve told you much about that time, have I? During the war, the Second World War. It was a terrible time, such confusion, so many things were broken. It seemed …” She sighed. “Well, it seemed as if the world would never return to normal. As if it had been tipped off its axis and nothing would ever set it to rights.” She cupped her hands around the steaming rim of her mug and stared down at it.
“My family—Mum and Dad, Rita and Ed and I—we all lived in a small house together in Barlow Street, near the Elephant and Castle, and the day after war broke out we were rounded up at school, marched over to the railway station, and put into train carriages. I’ll never forget it, all of us with our tags on and our masks and our packs, and the mothers, who’d had second thoughts because they came running down the road towards the station, shouting at the guard to let their kids off; then shouting at older siblings to look after the little ones, not to let them out of their sight.”
She sat for a moment, biting her bottom lip as the scene played out in her memory.
“You must’ve been frightened,” I said quietly. We’re not really hand-holders in our family or else I’d have reached out and taken hers.
“I was, at first.” She removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes. Her face had a vulnerable, unfinished look without her frames, like a small nocturnal animal confused by the daylight. I was glad when she put them on again and continued. “I’d never been away from home before, never spent a night apart from my mother. But I had my older brother and sister with me, and as the trip went on and one of the teachers handed round bars of chocolate, everybody started to cheer up and look upon the experience almost like an adventure. Can you imagine? War had been declared but we were all singing songs and eating canned pears and looking out of the window playing I Spy. Children are very resilient, you know; callous in some cases.
“We arrived eventually in a town called Cranbrook, only to be split into groups and loaded onto various coaches. The one I was on with Ed and Rita took us to the village of Milderhurst, where we were walked in lines to a hall. A group of local women was waiting for us there, smiles fixed on their faces, lists in hand, and we were made to stand in rows as people milled about, making their selection.
“The little ones went fast, especially the pretty ones. People supposed they’d be less work, I expect, that they’d have less of the whiff of London about them.”
She smiled crookedly. “They soon learned. My brother was picked early. He was a strong boy, tall for his age, and the farmers were desperate for help. Rita went a short while after with her friend from school.”
Well, that was it. I reached out and laid my hand on hers. “Oh, Mum.”
“Never mind.” She pulled free and gave my fingers a tap. “I wasn’t the last to go. There were a few others, a little boy with a terrible skin condition. I don’t know what happened to him, but he was still standing there in that hall when I left.
“You know, for a long time afterwards, years and years, I forced myself to buy bruised fruit if that’s what I picked up first at the greengrocer’s. None of this checking it over and putting it back on the shelf if it didn’t measure up.”
“But you were chosen eventually.”
“Yes, I was chosen eventually.” She lowered her voice, fiddling with something in her lap, and I had to lean close. “She came in late. The room was almost clear, most of the children had gone and the ladies from the Women’s Voluntary Service were putting away the tea things. I’d started to cry a little, though I did so very discreetly. Then all of a sudden, she swept in and the room, the very air, seemed to alter.”
“Alter?” I wrinkled my nose, thinking of that scene in Carrie when the light explodes.
“It’s hard to explain. Have you ever met a person who seems to bring their own atmosphere with them when they arrive somewhere?”
Maybe. I lifted my shoulders, uncertain. My friend Sarah has a habit of turning heads wherever she goes; not exactly an atmospheric phenomenon, but still …
“No, of course you haven’t. It sounds so silly to say it like that. What I mean is that she was different from other people, more … Oh, I don’t know. Just more. Beautiful in an odd way, long hair, big eyes, rather wild looking, but it wasn’t that alone which set her apart. She was only seventeen at the time, in September 1939, but the other women all seemed to fold into themselves when she arrived.”
“They were deferential?”
“Yes, that’s the word, deferential. Surprised to see her and uncertain how to behave. Finally, one of them spoke up, asking whether if she could help, but the girl merely waved her long fingers and announced that she’d come for her evacuee. That’s what she said; not an evacuee, her evacuee. And then she came straight over to where I was sitting on the floor. ‘What’s your name?’ she said, and when I told her she smiled and said that I must be tired, having traveled such a long way. ‘Would you like to come and stay with me?’ I nodded, I must have, for she turned then to the bossiest woman, the one with the list, and said that she would take me home with her.”
“What was her name?”
“Blythe,” said my mother, suppressing the faintest of shivers. “Juniper Blythe.”
“And was it she who sent you the letter?”
Mum nodded. “She led me to the fanciest car I’d ever seen and drove me back to the place where she and her older twin sisters lived, through a set of iron gates, along a winding driveway, until we reached an enormous stone edifice surrounded by thick woods. Milderhurst Castle.”
The name was straight out of a gothic novel and I tingled a little, remembering Mum’s sob when she’d read the woman’s name and address on the back of the envelope. I’d heard stories about the evacuees, about some of the things that went on, and I said on a breath, “Was it ghastly?”
“Oh no, nothing like that. Not ghastly at all. Quite the opposite.”
“But the letter … it made you—”
“The letter was a surprise, that’s all. A memory from a long time ago.”
She fell silent then and I thought about the enormity of evacuation, how frightening, how odd it must have been for her as a child to be sent to a strange place where everyone and everything was vastly different. I could still touch my own childhood experiences, the horror of being thrust into new, unnerving situations, the furious bonds that were forged of necessity—to buildings, to sympathetic adults, to special friends—in order to survive. Remembering those urgent friendships, something struck me: “Did you ever go back, Mum, after the war? To Milderhurst?”
She looked up sharply. “Of course not. Why would I?”
“I don’t know. To catch up, to say hello. To see your friend.”
“No.” She said it firmly. “I had my own family in London, my mother couldn’t spare me, and besides, there was work to be done, cleaning up after the war. Real life went on.” And with that, the familiar veil came down between us and I knew the conversation was over.
WE DIDN’T have the roast in the end. Mum said she didn’t feel like it and asked whether I minded terribly giving it a miss this weekend. It seemed unkind to remind her that I don’t eat meat anyway and that my attendance was more in the order of daughterly service, so I told her it was fine and suggested that she have a lie-down. She agreed, and as I gathered my things into my bag she was already swallowing two aspirins in preparation, reminding me to keep my ears covered in the wind.
My dad, as it turns out, slept through the whole thing. He’s older than Mum and had retired from his work a few months before. Retirement hasn’t been good for him: he roams the house during the week, looking for things to fix and tidy, driving Mum mad, then on Sunday he rests in his armchair. The God-given right of the man of the house, he says to anyone who’ll listen.
I gave him a kiss on the cheek and left the house, braving the chill air as I made my way to the tube, tired and unsettled and somewhat subdued to be heading back alone to the fiendishly expensive flat I’d shared until recently with Jamie. It wasn’t until somewhere between High Street Kensington and Notting Hill Gate that I realized Mum hadn’t told me what the letter said.
© 2010 KATE MORTON
What People are Saying About This
“A nuanced exploration of family secrets and betrayal . . . captivating.” —People (****)
“A new leap in Morton’s authorial choreography. . . . A rich treat for fans of historical fiction.” —The Washington Post
“A spellbinding journey, a mystery whose well-paced revelations provide a surprising and deeply satisfying read.” —Booklist
“A fresh and thrilling gothic mystery. . . . Layers of deliciously surprising secrets.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Distant Hours includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
A long-lost letter arrives in the post and Edie Burchill finds herself on a journey to Milderhurst Castle, a grand but moldering old place in the English countryside. Once home to Edie’s mother fifty years before during World War II, the only current residents are the elderly Blythe sisters—Persephone (Percy), Seraphina (Saffy), and Juniper. Inside the decaying castle, Edie begins to unravel her mother’s story—uncovering secrets hidden in the stones and discovering the long-awaited truth of what really happened in “the distant hours” of the past.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. The novel opens with the prologue from Raymond Blythe’s fictional, famous work, The True History of the Mud Man. He writes: “The moat has begun to breathe. Deep, deep, mired in the mud, the buried man’s heart kicks wetly…the Mud Man opens an eye. Sharp, sudden, tracks it back and forth.” (p. 3) Did you think that the Mud Man was a human being, a monster, or something else? Why did the author choose to open the novel with such a dark, frightening story? How did reading this prologue affect the way you entered the story?
2. From the beginning, it is clear that words, books, and stories have a strong hold on Edie Burchill. Referring to the letter her mother receives from Juniper Blythe, Edie reflects, “a letter will always seek a reader…sooner or later, like it or not, words have a way of finding the light, of making their secrets known.” (p. 9) Why does Juniper’s letter have such a strong impact on Meredith? How does Edie’s experience as an editor and obsession with words impact her determination to unravel the mystery of Milderhurst Castle, the Blythe sisters, and her mother’s role in their lives? Besides Juniper’s letter, what other words—in the form of letters, diaries, stories, books—make their secrets known in the novel?
3. Again and again, Milderhurst Castle is portrayed as a living, breathing entity, constructed of stones that “sing” and riddled with passageways that form a network of “veins.” When Edie first meets the sisters, Percy refers to herself as a buttress for the castle’s architecture—“I’ve done what was necessary to stop the walls collapsing around us” (p. 67)—while Saffy cannot spend more than one night away from the castle, “due to strong feelings about sleeping in her own bed and being on hand to prop up the castle, bodily if need be, should it begin to crumble.” (p. 125) Why is Milderhurst Castle depicted in such human terms, and why are the sisters described as a physical part of the castle itself? To what extent does the castle depend on the sisters for its existence? To what extent do the sisters rely on the castle for their survival?
4. Edie has two encounters with Juniper in the first section of the novel. The first time, Juniper is a confused and disheveled old woman. Just pages later she is fresh faced, girlish, and dressed in the wedding gown that Saffy made for her so many years before. Discuss what Edie learns about Juniper in each instance and why the author depicts Juniper in contrasting ways in such quick succession. Does Edie have more sympathy for one version of Juniper than the other? Which version of Juniper is closer to who she really is?
5. With the exception of Juniper, the Blythe sisters do not know that Edie Burchill is Meredith Baker’s daughter. Why doesn’t Edie ever reveal who she is to the sisters? Do you think that Percy and Saffy had any knowledge of her true identity?
6. Saffy constantly expresses her displeasure over the war and how it has affected her life. She thinks to herself, “It was a tragedy that so many of the nation’s flower gardens had been abandoned or given over to vegetable cultivation…Lack of potatoes left a person’s stomach growling, but absence of beauty hardened the soul.” (p. 122) How does Saffy attempt to keep the castle beautiful despite the difficulties posed by the war, and why is beauty so important to her? What examples do you see of characters whose souls hardened because of a lack of beauty during the war? How does Saffy’s view of war and wartime life contrast with Percy’s?
7. As Saffy and Percy wait for Thomas Cavill to arrive at Milderhurst Castle on that fateful evening that he and Juniper are to announce their engagement, Saffy remarks, “You mustn’t prejudge him for being late, Percy…it’s the fault of the war. Nothing runs on time anymore.” (p. 198) What does Saffy mean by this comment? To what extent does war still affect the sisters’ lives and life at Milderhurst Castle in the present day sections of the novel?
8. Just as Aunt Rita never understood why Meredith did not want to leave Milderhurst and return home when the evacuation was over, Percy cannot understand why Saffy wants to leave the castle and take a job in London. Why are Meredith and Saffy both drawn to a life that is opposite to their own? What does Meredith gain by living in the country, and why does she run away from her parents when faced with the prospect of moving back to London? Why does Percy allow Juniper to go to London and not Saffy?
9. As Edie and her mother sit in the emergency room after her father’s heart attack, Edie says, “I was sunk by the sense that I knew everything and nothing of the person sitting next to me. The woman in whose body I had grown strong and whose house I’d been raised in was in some ways a vital stranger to me.” (p. 243) Why is it so jarring for Edie to learn the secrets of her mother’s past? Do you see any parallels between Edie’s discoveries about her mother’s past and the discoveries that the Blythe sisters make about one another? How do the characters attempt to understand revelations about family members whom they thought they knew?
10. When Percy explains her reasons for not handing Milderhurst over to the National Trust, she says, “A place is more than the sum of its physical parts; it’s a repository for memories, a record and retainer of all that has happened within its boundaries” (p. 319). In light of everything that happens in the novel, how do you interpret this statement? What does Milderhurst mean to the sisters and why do they feel so connected to it? Why do the Blythe sisters say that the castle’s stones sing of the “distant hours” and what does this mean?
11. Recalling the first time she encountered The True History of the Mud Man, Edie reflects “that in my hands I held an object whose simple appearance belied its profound power….real life was never going to be able to compete with fiction again.” (p. 31) By contrast, Thomas, who teaches literature before he enlists in the army, believes that words on the page cannot compare to real life: “When he read to his students about the battle cry of Henry V, he scraped against the shallow floor of his limited experience. War, he knew, would give him the depth of understanding he craved.” (p. 354) Which character’s perspective do you identify with more, and why? How does each character’s viewpoint on reality versus fiction prove to be true or false based on their experiences throughout the novel?
12. Throughout the course of the novel, the author offers various perspectives and opinions about Juniper’s mental state and what sets her apart from her sisters. When Juniper hallucinates, some doctors prescribe pills, while “Daddy said they were the voices of her ancestors and that she had been chosen specially to hear them.” (p. 368) Why do you think the author is deliberately vague about what affects Juniper? Why is Juniper so afraid of becoming like her father? What does it mean for her to “lose time” when the past and present are so intertwined throughout the novel? Are Percy and Saffy justified in their efforts to keep Juniper as sheltered as they do?
13. Just as the characters of the novel often feel as if incidents from the past are occurring in the present day, the structure of the novel moves in time between past and present, allowing insight into characters at various stages in their lives and a unique window into the events that shaped them. Did you find this technique of switching between time periods effective? Which sections did you prefer, the past or present? Why do the events of the past play such a vital role in what happens in the present day sections of the novel?
14. Toward the end of the novel, Edie learns the origins of the story of the Mud Man and Saffy’s nightmares. Edie thinks, “It was little wonder he’d been driven mad by guilt.” (p. 583) If this is true, why does Raymond take up Saffy’s dream and turn it into a story for children to read? Does writing The True History of the Mud Man do anything to assuage his guilt? How does the publication of the book and the story affect the Blythe sisters? What is it about the story of the Mud Man that captivates readers to the point of obsession? Who can most lay claim to the story of the Mud Man?
15. Discuss the conclusion of the novel. Do you think Edie was honest about her reasons for not wanting to write the prologue to the new edition of The True History of the Mud Man? Do you think Edie’s involvement with the sisters in any way led to what happens to them at the end of the novel? Were you surprised by the fate of the sisters? Why or why not?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Saffy fondly recalls a game her family played where "a location, a character type, and a word would be supplied, then Cook’s largest egg-timer flipped, and the race would be on to craft the most entertaining fiction” (135). Using the guidelines provided by Saffy, devise your own version of this writing game and play it with your book group.
2. Edie, an only child, marvels at the complicated bonds between the Blythe sisters: “the intricate tangle of love and duty and resentment…the glances they exchanged; the complicated balance of power established over decades; the games I would never play with rules I would never understand.” (p. 523) Discuss the bonds between you and your siblings and whether or not you think the author captures that unique relationship. If you are an only child, talk about whether or not you wanted siblings as you were growing up.
3. While Edie is a full time reader by trade, The True History of the Mud Man was the book that sparked her life-long interest in words and stories. Discuss some of the books that ignited your passion for reading as a child. If you have children, do you plan to share those books with them, or have you done so already?
4. When Percy shows Edie around her father’s study, she notices a painting that Percy says scared them as children on the wall, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” by Goya. Look up this piece of artwork at www.museum.cornell.edu and discuss how the image relates to and illuminates the themes of madness and art in the novel.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
An ancient castle, dark family secrets, obsession, and madness are at the heart of Kate Morton's newest novel, The Distant Hours. For most of their lives, a distance has always existed between Edie Burchill and her mother. Then one day, a letter, lost for decades, mysteriously appears. Edie cannot help but burn with curiosity at her mother's reaction and the secrets of her past. During World War II, Edie's mother, Meredith, was one of thousands of children evacuated from war torn London into the safety of the English countryside and into Millderhurst Castle owned by the Blythe family. There, Juniper Blythe and her twin sisters, Pen and Saffy, and their father Raymond, the author of a classic children's novel, make a home for the displaced girl. Enchanted by the magnificence of the castle and its family, Meredith is enthralled by her new, but temporary circumstances, and falls in love with her surroundings. Decades later, gripped with curiosity of her mother's past, Edie travels to Millderhurst castle and meets the elderly and eccentric Blythe spinsters. Little by little, she discovers the dark secrets that lurk behind the castle walls and the real truth about the distant hours - the not too distant past. The Distant Hours by Kate Morton is a masterful tale that unfolds slowly, one secret at a time, teasing the reader with every turn of the page. The setting itself is compelling - an ancient castle ravaged by time with plenty of secret rooms and passageways. I found all the characters enigmatic, each with their own fascinating story. There's a little of everything in this story - love, betrayal, murder, and tragedy and it all lends a powerful ambience from the start of this fabulous story to the powerful end. Kate Morton writes with detail and deep introspection, making the characters convincing and larger than life. One cannot help but like this story and admire the clever way it unfolds. I could not put this book down and it kept me awake at night as I was eager to read on to discover the next secret. It truly is a beautifully written story. If you like a cozy mystery that involves ancient castles with loads of mystery, this is a must to have on your reading list. The Distant Hours is scheduled for release in early November. A very worthy novel that will be a bestseller! I have no doubt.
Somewhere there is a great story lurking in the 560 pages of this book Ms Norton has the flair for a first rate pseudo-gothic novel, however it is buried very deeply under pages and pages of description which adds nothing to the overall atmosphere except to make the book rather dreary. Would not recommend this to most of my reader friends.
Like a previous reviewer I think that this book could have used some better editing and lots less words on the part of the author. Having read and loved the first two books by this author, I pre-ordered and couldn't wait to get this one. There was an interesting plot and some unexpected twists but the book could have been 150 pages shorter and been much more enjoyable.
The Distant Hours October 12, 2010 Kate Morton I haven't had the occasion to read any of Kate Morton's previous books but I was blown away by this one. I received an advance copy with a plain light blue cover and wasn't sure if it was something I would enjoy. This book is wonderful! Ms. Morton has combined the history of WWI and WWII, romance over the ages, intrigue with a little murder and the mysteries between sisters and the difficulties within families to communicate. I couldn't put the book down but was then disappointed when I finished. Some people are intimidated by a long book, but if the book is well written you don't even notice the length. I will now look for other books by Kate Morton and look forward to being equally entranced.
I was quite fascinated with this book even given its length. It's not the type of book you can just blow through. The author spends a lot of time with character development and you will do yourself a huge disservice if you don't take your time with it. I found the writing beautiful and the storyline enchanting. The physical descriptions of the castle made me feel as though I could close my eyes and reach out and touch the moldering walls. I did feel a bit of disconnect between the relevancy of Edie's mother and her relationship to the main story. I suppose it was the "open door" to bringing the reader into the castle in the first place. The next book I want to read by Kate Morton is The Forgotten Garden. She has an uncanny ability to transport her readers to a different place and time. I am eager to see if she can perform her magic in that one as well.
It wasn't honestly the best book by Morton but it was good nonetheless. Enjoyable and interesting but just so.
I loved Kate Morton's book The Forgotten Garden, I loved it so much I thought I'd try another one of her books. This book seemed to drag on, the beginning didn't capture me, and about 70 pages in it still hasn't grabbed me. I've tried my hardest to get interested in this book but each chapter is just boring. She does give very descriptive sceneries, but that's it. The character's are bland. I would recommend The Forgotten Garden, but that's all.
Kate Morton has a way of telling stories....and makes them totally believable, just like the way my Grandmother told stories. This is the second of her books that I have read, and I'm looking to more! There is quality, and a substance to the book that is hard to describe. Just like bread pudding has a thickness to it, and is deliciously sweet...so are Kate Morton's books! GiGi
Beautifully written and takes you to another time and magical place.
Good pace and intriguing
This book has everything ... a castle, secrets, some kooky sisters, a murder. If you're looking for a book you can get lost in, this is it. I'm a fan of Kate's and love the way she writes and brings her characters to life. I also love the way she takes you back and forth through time effortlessly but doesn't reveal the whole story too fast, which of course leaves you on the edge of your seat and reading far into the night. You won't be disappointed with this one!
This book starts slowly, in the voice of the person who knows the least. but it also start beautifully, and slowly builds momentum as more and more information is revealed. I was guessing and pondering and never did solve much myself. I really enjoyed this book and thought it was very well done and exciting. I loved her other 2 books, and this one did not disappoint.
I know some feel the book was too long and too wordy....but to tell a good story and go back spanning 2 wars and a few generations of characters - I just found the words, descriptions and length a necessity in order to tell a good story and not miss anything. Morton weaves a good story and develops characters very well - I've read her first two books and thought they were wonderful. The Sisters Blythe needed a great deal of description since their characters were so totally different and they had their own secrets that had to be brought out and developed, as did Edie's mother - so many stories in their own lives as well as Meredith's and Edies....and intertwined to come out to the story in the end. I thought the story, plot and characters (and all those words) were amazing and told a wonderful story. Like The House at Riverton and The Forgotten Garden - I just enjoyed the characters so much I really hated to see the story end.
I was attracted to this book because of the plot--it seemed unique and different. However, I was disappointed and indifferent--overall: it's slow and rather dreary like most other reviewers have said. I found it boring and drab. It failed to keep my interest and I kept wondering when the pace would pick up. Some parts (such as when the sisters' pasts are revealed) did add some spark but failed to carry through for me. There were times when I honestly didn't even want to open the book again. Truthfully, save your $24--don't waste your money like I did.
I absolutely loved this book. I could not put it down. I loved all the characters - they are so well-developed! I felt like I knew each one. The story line was totally original and creative. I was sad when it ended. I have read reviews that say the story line is too long & boring - I could not disagree more. It was perfect. This will be on my short list of favorites for a long, long time. I am looking forward to reading more of Kate Morton's books. LOVED IT!
This book just dragged on and on. Some may call it character development but I found I cared less and knew little more as the chapters kept on. Not worth it, was great to read before sleep because it didn't capture you so I got lots of sleep.
Wonderful writing weaving a great plot with interesting, intrigueing characters.
My first introduction to Kate Morton's writing was The House at Riverton. A Gothic tale, told within multiple timelines, and secrets galore, The Distant Hours is no different in that respect. However, I should start this post by asking you a question: When you were a kid, what was the story that grabbed you? Held you speechless as you turned each page and introduced you to the world of imagination and possibility? I can think of a few titles that capture this feeling for me, but for Edie in The Distant Hours, there will only ever be one. It is a celebrated classic, one that is a horror story of monumental proportions, but is simultaneously literary. The Mud Man, by Richard Blythe, a tale of horror, intrigue, and disturbing events that shake a young mind to their bones - this is the story that made Edie fall in love with books. As an adult, she now works in the publishing industry and has a somewhat strained relationship with her parents in which not much is shared about their young lives. Disjointed this may be, Edie is aware that when her mother was a child, she was one of the many evacuees in England during World War II, and was the only one safely stationed at Milderhurst Castle. Already a Gothic and mysterious home it is even more so filled with secrets since this was the home of the very author of The Mud Man. Edie was always curious about her mother's relationship to this castle and the family, and while on a business trip, she decides to take a slight detour and visit the famous castle. While there, she meets the three daughters of Raymond Blythe, now much older while on a tour of the house, and is invited back much later to write the introduction for the release of a new edition of their father's famous story. Back and forth between the 1930s and the 1990s, and told from different characters' perspectives, this is simply haunting and Gothic, through and through. Where did the story of The Mud Man truly come from? Why is the oldest sister, Percy, so gruff and cold? Why is the youngest, Juniper, still waiting for her fiancé, even though it's been over fifty years? And what really was their relationship with Edie's mother? Once again, as with The House at Riverton, I find I'm always mesmerized with the mystery, the characters, their sadness, and their regrets. The story is creepy and detailed, and while I thought the end was a bit too nicely wrapped up for this eloquently haunting story, I was absolutely satisfied yet again with Kate Morton's work. I look forward to downloading another audiobook from her, and Caroline Lee as the narrator was extremely impressive. My first time listening to her voice, and I look forward to more.
Once again Kate Morton doesn't fail to deliver a briliant reading!
I just happened upon this book and I could'nt have been happier! I just loved the detail the author shares, and the characters are fantastic! This is a long book, which I love! More Please!!!!
I loved her first two books. They were very easy reads and nice escapes after a long day at work. This book had a really great plot, and I loved the characters, but I found the writing to be too wordy and the descriptions too elaborate. It felt like the author had changed her style and it wasn't for the better. It wasn't really about the book being too long or going into too many details, it was just that all of the adjectives and adverbs and attempts to set the scene didn't really work and didn't add anything to the story except bulk. I found myself skipping over many sentences at a time during the parts where it was especially pronounced. It's really too bad because I found that the plot and the setting really interesting and would have had the extra pages devoted to more of the Mud Man then the failed attempt at being a "better" writer. Perhaps now that the author is successful, she is taking less advice from her editors?
When I finished Kate Morton's House at Riverton I enthusiastically recommended it to EVERYONE I knew! And so I couldn't wait to read the Distant Hours. Despite Morton's well-fleshed characters and an intriguing premise, I found the book to be tedious, convoluted and therefore much too long. I DO look forward Morton's next creation - she's still my favorite author................
I am not sure how I rate this story. It is poetically and beautifully written as one would expect from Kate Morton. However, I agree with what others have said about it being a bit long and drawn out. I was captivated by the characters and their tragedies. I didn't become absorbed into the tale until about the last two hundred pages, then, I couldn't put it down. I anticipated more from Meredith's character in the end, since she contributed so much mystery in the beginning. I felt like I had read a similar story somewhere before minus the mud man. I can't say as I was disappointed, but I had expected better. I am still a huge fan of Kate Morten's. I loved "The Forgotten Garden". It remains my favorite book. For Kate Morten fans "The Distant Hours" is still worth investing the time to read. It is a wonderful tale of love and tragedy.
Once in a while you come across a book that imprints itself in your mind and touches you in so many ways. That's what happened when I read The Distant Hours. I adore this book and have it on my "to read again" shelf. I give it five stars.
"This book was amazing!" Those are the first words I uttered after reading the final sentence of The Distant Hours. I woke up that night and immediately began thinking about it again. I kept trying to work out an alternate ending, an alternate path for the Sisters Blythe, before coming to the conclusion that there was no alternative. The story is exactly as it had to be.The Distant Hours is narrated by Edie Burchill as she attempts to unravel two related mysteries. The first is the story of her mother's life. Edie is shocked to learn that her mother was evacuated from London to Milderhurst Castle during World War II. This, of course, leads her to the second mystery that revolves around the three Blythe sisters who still live in Milderhurst Castle fifty years later. Interspersed with the present day tale are sections set during the war told from the varying viewpoints of the sisters. The past informs the present and fills the gaps that Edie is unable to fill on her own.Morton brings together these strands perfectly creating an extremely satisfying sense of completion. Everything is connected. Everything comes full circle. Everything is completely believable. The end is stunning. I highly recommend The Distant Hours to any reader. There are elements of mystery, history, romance, and family. There is something for everyone, and I'm sure you'll be delighted.