Kate Morton is travelling in time
It's probably unintentional, but when Kate Morton suggests we meet in London's Knightsbridge to talk about her new book, The Distant Hours, it makes sense. The best-selling Australian author of The House at Riverton and The Forgotten Garden is obsessed with all things gothic - her books are teeming with awful family secrets, strange houses and mysterious memories. So Knightsbridge, full of Victorian-gothic buildings with opulent turrets, exuberant decoration and shrouded in a morning mist, is the perfect backdrop.
"Aesthetically, I love England," says Morton, gazing out of the window of our chi-chi café. "I don't know what it is, but when I arrive in London I feel more alive and I do think places can do that to people. For me, it's about the continuity of history. History is intangible, but buildings aren't. You can touch them. You can sense the layers of the past accumulating on the walls if you walk into an old house. In England you have that continuity of history, of people's lives full of heartache and happiness and joy, all in one spot. I love it. And it's where my imagination takes me when I write."
And her love of not just England, but a certain kind of English literature - think Jane Eyre or I Capture the Castle - is shot through everything Morton writes. The House at Riverton - the book that announced this 34-year-old to the world three years ago - is, as the title suggests, set in a grand English country house. She followed that with The Forgotten Garden, where Blackhurst Manor is at the heart of the story. And in The Distant Hours, it's the decaying Milderhurst Castle that hides the secret about a mother's shadowy past that frames the narrative. "I prefer these places to be slightly crumbly and sliding into decline rather than pristine," she beams.
All three books attempt a similar trick, too; they might be set in a version of bygone England, but crucially they're also tethered to the present in some way. Old, painful memories are unexpectedly triggered. The House at Riverton is ostensibly set in 1924, two young sisters witnessing the suicide of a young poet. But it's only when a young director - keen on making a film about the poet - visits the elderly ex-housemaid in 1999 that the secrets about what really happened begin to tumble out. And in The Distant Hours, it's a 50-year-old, long-lost letter received by the mother in 1992 that takes her daughter Edie back to Milderhurst Castle. In trying to unravel what really happened when her mother was evacuated to this strange place during the Second World War, inhabited by the three distinctly odd "Sisters Blythe", Edie not only finds out the truth about her mother, but encounters madness, murder and betrayal.
"I'm not that interested in history unless it relates to the present," she admits. "I don't read historical fiction." Which is, actually, obvious. For all the (deserved) praise Hilary Mantel received for her Booker-winning Wolf Hall, set in the 16th-century England of Thomas Cromwell, it's not as compulsively readable as The Distant Hours. Perhaps the books attempt different things, but the history in Morton's novels is concerned with the seemingly inconsequential minutiae of everyday life, rather than the bigger picture.
"We've all read about World War II, about Dunkirk or a military offensive," she says. "But for me, what's more interesting are the diaries, the letters that reveal what people actually did at that time and how they felt about it. I love the diaries of Nella Last [the wartime writer who went by the moniker Housewife 49] - there's a section that says how she used to give her hens aspirin when they looked nervy. It sounds weird, but a little detail like that blows my mind - to think that people weren't looking after themselves at a really difficult time, but their hens.
"So I used it in The Distant Hours," she laughs.
It sounds like a minuscule detail, but it's genuinely the small things that interest Morton - and propel her books to their thrilling conclusions. She tells me that innocuous misunderstandings also fascinate her - for example, in The House at Riverton, a tiny lie about knowing shorthand reverberates across the decades. "The thread that links us, now, to things that happened then can be so fine," she says. And these links in Morton's books are all bound up in another very gothic trope: inheritance, both material and psychological. In The Distant Hours, the Blythe sisters are undeniably products of their rather tragic father and Edie is also a product, in her timidity, of the way her mother has raised her.
"I can see elements of that in my own life, too," she says. "My mother is an antique dealer, so I've spent a lot of time being dragged from one dark corner of a second-hand shop to another, finding the dark, dusty corner where the books were thrown. And what chimed with me is that all of these artefacts have stories. They're little travels in time. And I've always loved that idea, that an object, a piece of knowledge, an experience, can have such an impact."
Morton admits that Edie is much more of a version of herself than any of the characters in her other books - "bookish, a little out-of-vogue, slightly old fashioned in her interests" - she giggles. She's also one of three sisters, like the Blythe sisters in the book, which makes a lot of sense. The Distant Hours is very strong on the sibling relationship, in understanding how three ostensibly different people are tied together. In the book, these three elderly spinsters almost become one entity, even though, as we find out in thrilling fashion, they all wanted different things many years ago.
"I did my masters on tragedy, and came to think of it as the conflict between desire and possibility," says Morton. "All of my books deal with that in some way, and certainly the sisters want something that isn't possible because of their circumstances. As a writer, I'm attracted to that moment in human experience."
But for all Morton's scholarly views on tragedy or gothic literature, her books remain hugely entertaining, page-turning mysteries. There's romance, intrigue, and, in her new book, a compelling story-within-a-story. The Distant Hours is pure escapism, luscious in detail and full of suspense.
"This is going to sound odd," she starts with a smile. "But with my books I really want people to feel how they did as children when they first read, when they first realised that black marks on a white page are doorways into different worlds, a place where you can cry for made-up characters. For me, that book was The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton. I totally lived that book. I think I'm always trying to recapture that feeling of going up that tree into a different world."
And if that makes The Distant Hours, or indeed any of Morton's writing sound childish, nothing could be further from the truth.
"I don't mean that at all. I'm talking about that feeling when nothing else matters beyond the book you're reading. That consuming, intoxicating feeling. I don't think it's wrong to hope you can write a book that provokes that in adults, too."
The Distant Hours (Pan Macmillan) is out now.
Published: December 19, 2010 04:00 AM