Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

·         Paperback: 576 pages
·         Publisher: Washington Square Press, 2011
·         Price: $15.00
·         ISBN-10: 1439152799
·         ISBN-13: 978-1439152799

Oh no. One look at that cover and I winced. A gloomy castle on the side of a mountain, overlooking a lake below, and overhead a rather dusky and stormy sky … so not my type of book. The immediate impression is of something Gothic and hopelessly romantic. But it was a suggestion by my book club, and I do adore my book club, those wise and bookish Mavens, and even when I wince at a club choice, they very nearly always bring me to a conclusion that I have been missing out on something, some book, some author, I would otherwise not have read.
Yes, yes, I know—don’t judge a book by its cover. But, really, I wasn’t wrong. I was not wrong that this is not the sort of book I’d choose on my own, and I wasn’t wrong that I ended up enjoying a book I would otherwise no doubt have never read.
As I have often shared with my book club, I tend to classify good writers and good books into one of three groups (and the not good, well, we’ll just leave them alone). One—the storyteller. The storyteller weaves a great yarn, draws children as well as the elderly close around the evening fire and tells a story that makes the audience lose all track of time. Two—the literary master. Sometimes dense, sometimes overly artsy, the literary master is more concerned with the art form than the story, but constructs such a fine and gorgeous sentence that all is forgiven.
I tend to choose the literary master over the storyteller, because the art form is what fascinates me most. This type of writer is distinctly unique, with a style his or her own.
But oh, when I find a Three! Three—the literary storyteller. This artist who can tell an engaging story even while creating a literary art form is most rare, and when I find such a book, I am lost to the world, immersed in the created world within, and a fan for life. These are my top shelf books.  
Kate Morton easily falls within the group I call the storytellers, and she does indeed weave a fine tale. I easily fell into hours of reading, drawn into the story, enjoying the mystery. Yet the instances that a particular sentence or description took my breath away were few. She is a skilled writer. No unnecessary flourishes, nothing without purpose, no showing off, no spare lines just for the sheer fun of it.
“I followed Percy Blythe along corridors and down sets of stairs into the increasingly dim depths of the castle. Never chatty, that morning she was resolutely stony. Stony and coated with stale cigarette smoke; the smell was so strong I had to leave a pace between us as we walked. The silence suited me, at any rate; after my conversation with Saffy, I was in no mood for awkward chatter. Something in her story, or perhaps not in the story itself so much as the fact that she’d told it to me, was disquieting.” (Page 456)
Morton’s tale is about three sisters who live in a castle—Percy, Saffy and Juniper—and a young woman, Edith, who unfolds their various intertwining mysteries of lost loves, a rather tyrannical father, a fairy tale creature in the moat, and a withdrawn mother who is keeping too much to herself. It all centers around a story written by the father of the sisters, Raymond Blythe, called The True History of the Mud Man.
There is plenty of tale to be told, perhaps too much, and so the reader doesn’t go particularly deep into any one character so much as span a wide horizon of events and dark intrigues. There are also quite a few stormy nights. For this reason, I doubt that anyone might put down the book and feel haunted long after by any particular character in it. They are imminently forgettable. The tale, however, might linger for a while, and for those so inclined, who do enjoy stormy nights and monsters in moats and old women in castle towers gone mad with longing for that one lost love, I think this may suit the bill very well. After all, this type of story has a strong following, as Morton’s quick popularity has shown, and fans of these types of novels can be fervent and loyal. I suspect she has a terrific writing career ahead of her.
Kate Morton, a native Australian, holds degrees in dramatic art and English literature and is a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland. She lives with her family in Brisbane, Australia, and is writing her third novel.

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