The Distant Hours review

This is the third novel by the very successful Australian author Kate Morton. Her first book The Shifting Fog was an international bestseller and this was followed by The Forgotten Garden. Morton’s novels might be called literary mystery romances and they centre around family secrets that play out over generations.

I didn’t read The Shifting Fog feeling suspicious of a book that was over promoted. I did buy The Forgotten Garden (who could resist that title) but it languished on my bookshelf for some reason. Then The Distant Hours came along and the blurb was too irresistable.

Elderly sisters living in a castle, their reclusive father, Raymond Blythe, a famous author, a long lost letter that connects our heroine’s mother to the castle, a tragic romance causing insanity, mysterious deaths etc etc

At the time I bought it The Distant Hours was only for sale in hard copy in Austalia (huh? that usually happens only for a beautifully produced lit fiction title, or that last Harry Potter) so I bought it as an ebook. This worked out very well as I didn’t have to lug a 600 page book around on holidays.

On the whole I enjoyed the novel but found it very patchy as if a different author had written various parts, and the plot was very convoluted with turns upon turns upon turns. Add to this different time frames and numerous points of view and I found myself exasperated in parts and bored with the overly detailed narrative in others.

This is a pity because Morton can write very effectively. Her portrayal of the dynamics of the relationship of the Blythe sisters is acute – the stiff, controlling but quite funny Percy, the seemingly soft and yielding but, in reality, tougher than she seems Saffy, and the fey and unwordly Juniper is wonderfully done especially in the long section near the beginning set in 1941 when they are waiting at the castle for Juniper to return from London with a ‘young man’.

The period (wartime) setting of the novel is effectively evoked as is the moody, crumbling castle but I found some of the ‘contemporary’ (though in reality this section is set in the early 1990s) narrative forced and annoying. Why on earth our heroine Edie’s father comes in to the story as he takes an interest from his sick bed in Raymond Blythe’s Gothic children’s book The True History of the Mud Man is beyond me.

And it is really Edie’s mother, Meredith, who has a direct link to the castle (and for whatever reason has kept this period of her life secret from her daughter and her husband). But Morton does not choose Meredith, although it is she who has something at stake, but Edie to follow the trail of clues and mystery back to the castle. Perhaps Morton wanted to show Meredith’s boring life as a consequence of decisions she made long ago and thus felt Meredith could not be a compelling enough character, so young, literary Edie is given the role.

There is a trend in genre publishing for these sort of novels that meld the present with the past. Like Edie we, the reader, want to unravel a mystery and Edie becomes our proxy as we follow clues and find out snippets of information. But Morton goes one step further and allows us into the heads of characters in the past so, for example, we see how Percy Blythe feels and acts in the present (through Edie’s eyes) and also how she thinks, feels and acts in the past (although the whole is referred through the modern protagonist of Edie).

I wonder about the extraordinary popularity of these books. Readers don’t merely want to read about a fiction occurring in the past, they want it resolved in the present ie they want total control and everything has to be meaningful to a character, today.

But who am I to quibble? Morton is hugely popular, and readers seem to like the plethora of twists and turns in her plots; and even, it appears, are prepared to overlook the dead ends and the boring, irrelevant bits.

The Three Miss Kings

Ada Cambridge

Ada Cambridge is an Australian author of the late 19th century. She was born in Norfolk in 1844 but came to Australia after marrying a clergyman at the age of 26. She lived in many rural towns in Victoria before settling in Melbourne. Like many 19th century women writers she wrote to supplement the family income. Ada was a very popular novelist in her day (she wrote 18 novels and this one The Three Miss Kings was published by Heinemann in the UK in 1891 after being serialised in the Australiasian in 1883) but like many 19th century Australian women writers such as Rosa Praed and “Tasma”, Jessie Couvreur, she is virtually unknown today.

This is a pity because The Three Miss Kings is not only an enjoyable read it also provides a portrait of colonial Melbourne and paints a picture of the mores of daily life at that time. While the novel is essentially a romance, like writers such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Ada also deals with social themes such as philanthropy, religious belief, the role of women, and class – but with a light touch.

The three Miss Kings are: the maternal Elizabeth, the eldest; Patty, outspoken and artistic; and the youngest, the more susceptible, Eleanor. At the outset of the novel they are in their twenties and recently orphaned living in a remote cottage “overlooking a wide bay of the Southern Ocean”. Their parents lived in obscurity but brought up their daughters in a romantic way, steeped in music, foreign languages and the natural world. After their father’s death the sisters determine to make their way in Melbourne on the small amount of money made on the sale of the cottage. Landing in Melbourne by steamer they are initially taken under the wing of Paul Brion, a journalist and the son of the sisters’ solicitor.

Of course it’s “improper” for an unrelated male to involve himself with the women alone so he introduces them to a society matron, Mrs Aarons. Paul is mistaken in his opinion of Mrs Aarons who snobbishly slights the unsophisticated sisters. However at one of Mrs Aarons’ soirees Patty plays the piano and impresses a German maestro. It is here we begin to see there is more to the sisters’ past than meets the eye. Paul also falls for Patty partly through her music – he listens to her playing from the balcony of his rooms which are next door to the modest house where the sisters live.

Also at the soiree is the kind-hearted but overbearing Mrs Duff-Scott. She sees the innate refinement of the sisters and hopes they will becomes the daughters she never had, showering them with fine clothes and introducing them to society.

Historical events of the day provide backdrops to two crucial scenes in the novel. At the procession for the International Exhibition in Melbourne in 1880, Elizabeth becomes separated from her sisters and finds herself crushed by the press of spectators on the Treasury steps only to be saved by the strong arms of Kingscote Yelverton. And at that Australian institution, the Melbourne Cup, the sisters experience a social triumph. Shown to advantage in their special outfits they are universally admired as society beauties, but the Cup is also the scene of a misunderstanding between Patty and Paul that sends their budding romance onto the rocks of despair.

A turning point in the novel occurs when the sisters retreat from the tensions of their obligations to Mrs Duff-Scott and the choices to be made regarding suitors and return to their old home (conveniently bought by Paul’s father – the solicitor). Here a sightseeing trip to the local caves helps Elizabeth make up her mind about Yelverton and a chance discovery in the house leads to an unravelling of threads from the past.

Ada Cambridge sets up an intriguing dichotomy between “natural” worth – innate qualities such as artistic sensibility, sympathy to others, self-awareness – against social values such as wealth, position, custom, and I had hoped this would be developed more fully. However, as Audrey Tate states in her perceptive introduction, “in the earliest chapters the novel appears to be on the verge of developing an exciting feminist theme … but the pressures of society of one’s time are not easily disregarded”.

The novel may end as a conventional romance but Ada’s humour and irony shine through. Like Austen before her she employs a knowing omniscient narrator. When Elizabeth flings her arms around Yelverton’s neck, the narrator comments:

“It is not, I own, what a heroine should have done, whose duty it was to carry a difficulty of this sort through half a volume at least, but I am nevertheless convinced that my real Elizabeth did it, though I was not there to see—standing as she did, within a few inches of her lover, and with nothing to prevent them coming to a reasonable understanding.” p.249

For other reviews of Virago Modern Classics go to Book Snob or A Few of my Favourite Books and click on Virago Reading Week.

Review – The Anatomy of Wings Karen Foxlee

UQP 288 pp

This novel is set in an unnamed mining town which we can take is based on Mount Isa where the author grew up. It’s the 1970s, Jenny Day is ten year’s old and something terrible has happened to her older sister, Beth. Jenny thinks the how and why of Beth’s death lies in a box of her belongings their mother has hidden away. Of course it’s not that simple and we follow Jenny’s childish attempts to make sense of things as she goes back over the last year of Beth’s life. Jenny is on the cusp between childhood and a more grown up view of the world and the author beautifully evokes Jenny’s love for her family and her sister, and her perplexity at what happens. She is torn between the fanciful romanticism of her grandmother and the prosaic reality of her mother, between her own safe world and the world of the ‘bad’ girls in town that Beth’s involved with. Some of what happens is confronting but the lyricism of Foxlee’s style and the wonderful character of Jenny make this an enjoyable book to read. The author beautifully recreates the poignancy of leaving the simplicity of childhood behind. She also has a marvellous eye for the details of small town life, as well as for the harsh beauty of the outback.

The Anatomy of Wings won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (South East Asia and South Pacific Region) and the 2008 Dobbie Literary Award for first published woman writer.