At times, it seems like Kate Morton’s only influence is The Secret Garden. The Australian author is great at conveying a sense of slow-building gothic menace and hidden danger lurking on the edge of a crumbling old manse, and she’s good at unpacking old family secrets over the course of a long-form narrative, but her latest, The Distant Hours, features simultaneously too little and too much story, and is in desperate need of an editor.
Two separate storylines form the center of The Distant Hours. In the first, a female narrator contemplates what might have caused her mother to react with a grief-stricken sob upon receiving a long-lost letter in the mail. (The narrative takes place in 1992; the letter is from the 1940s.) In the second, three sisters, sequestered in a rambling castle, attempt to deal with the legacy of their famous author father and the forces pulling them apart as World War II rages in the background.
Naturally, the two stories are linked, and Morton quickly dispatches the link. But the tight plotting of the first 50 pages gives way to a central 450 pages that wander all over the place. More problematically, Morton is fantastic at delineating the narrator and her mother as characters, but doesn’t stray far from the “eccentric women bound to their castle” characterization for the sisters, meaning that when Morton abandons her first-person narrative in 1992 in favor of the ’40s, the novel loses whatever mystery and nuance it had.
But there’s a massive, massive plot here, filled with twists upon twists upon twists. Morton doesn’t earn all of them, particularly the final twist, meant to explain what caused the youngest of the three sisters to lose her mind. Morton sets plenty of intriguing mysteries in motion, but she eventually loses interest in too many of the characters, trapping them in a more conventional narrative than they deserve. Just when the book’s sense of gothic horror and romance should be ramping up, Morton is minimizing the narrator and her mother in favor of characters who simply aren’t as interesting. Morton envisions the three sisters as grand, tragic heroines, but their characterizations are stereotypical at best, and indistinguishable at worst. Crazy sisters in a castle isn’t the worst idea for a gothic tale, but the book never earns that craziness.
It doesn’t help that Morton never uses one word when she could use 50. Whole pages are taken up on descriptions of people and places that never return, and though some of this might work as a mood-building exercise, too much of it has nothing to do with anything. After establishing the narrator and her mother, as well as the faded, elderly husks of the three sisters, in the first 60 pages, Morton spends the next hundred describing minute events that take place in the space of about an hour. The worst thing about her inability to get to any sort of point is that there are places in the novel where she’s abundantly able to do so, making everything else feel that much more enervating.