” For Juniper, Daddy’s death had been like the release of that first rope. She had felt liberation as her body, her soul, her whole being shifted sideways . . . There remained now only a single piece of rope stretching between Juniper and her home. It was the hardest to sever, tied neatly in a careful knot by Percy and Saffy. And yet it had to be done, for their love and concern entrapped her just as surely as Daddy’s expectations. ” (Part 4, p.405)
I breathe a much-needed breath of relief as I turn the last pages of The Distant Hours, a book so overwritten that the author would go such extraordinary length to dress a family mystery that could be told in half the pages. The Distant Hours, fraught with themes of family duty, expectations, love, and legacy, is the story if Milderhurst Castle. It all begins with a long lost letter, which leads to Edie Burchill taking a trip from London to Kent in search of the grand old castle, and the three Blythe sisters that live within it. She is linked to Milderhurst because her mother, as a child, lived there when she was evacuated during World War II and became best friends with the youngest sister.
No. No one else could be expected to look at things that way. They couldn’t know what it was to grow up in the shadows of that book. Percy felt great bitterness as she thought about the ghastly legacy of the Mud Man. This—what had happened tonight . . . Evil on itself shall back recoil—and Milton had been right, for they were paying still for Daddy’s evil act. (Part 5, p.553)
Milderhurst is the home of world renowned author Raymond Blythe, whose famous work had an unknown origin, and his three quirky daughters. All spinsters they are: twins Percy and saffy, rigid disciplinarian and motherly nurturer, and the younger, eclectic Juniper, who suffered a nervous breakdown when her lover jilted her in 1941, failing to show up on the night they were to announce their engagement. Since then her sisters have been very protective of her.
So the book is really wrapped up in more than one mystery, with Juniper’s mental setback being just the tip of an iceberg. What happened to her fiancé? More secrets are buried deep within the stone walls of the castle—and they all seem to be related by a long shot.
There was more to this story than met the eye. There had to be. For people didn’t just go mad simply because their lover stood them up, did they? (Part 3, p.280)
Indeed there is more to the story, but not worth trudging through a constipation of unnecessary details that do not advance the plot. Morton aims to give reader snippets of the different plot lines that slowly simmer and boil in the tragic outcome, but she tries too hard to be clever. The book is overdone, and confusing and wary at times. The relief to the constipation finally comes in the last fifth of the book, when one of the sisters who, privy to all the secrets the whole time, defensive of her father’s selfish ambitions and wrongful acts, decides to break loose everything to Edie. The budles do tie up seamlessly but it’s just not worth the slog. The morale of this long-winded tale is that even the most invincible and respectable could succumb to vanity at the expense of humanity.
560 pp. Washington Press Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]