"Have you ever wondered what the stretch of time smells like? I can’t say I had, not before I set foot inside Milderhurst Castle, but I certainly know now. Mould and ammonia, a pinch of lavender and a fair wack of dust, the mass disintegration of very old sheets of paper. And there’s something else, too, something underlying it all, something verging on rotten or stewed but not. It took me a while to work out what that smell was, but I think I know now. It’s the past. Thoughts and dreams, hopes and hurts, all brewed together, shifting in the stagnant air, unable ever to dissipate completely."
And so we enter the crumbling castle of Kate Morton’s third book, The Distant Hours. It’s a castle that feels so alive it’s a character itself. As a reader you feel the weight of its secrets, the burden of bearing witness, the consequences of acts occurring within its walls.
There is no greater joy than to be transported to another world through the pages of a book and in all Kate’s books that other world happens to be between the walls of a home. A grand house, a walled garden and little cottage, a castle: all remain as vivid as the characters who inhabit them.
Says Kate, ‘It’s one of my favourite parts of writing; creating the home in which my people move.’
‘For me, as a person, not just a writer, I adore old houses and buildings that feel like they bear the imprint of previous lives... the generations of people who have lived and loved and fought and worried and dreamed within their walls.’
Growing up in one of the original farmhouses on Tamborine Mountain in South East Queensland was a reminder to Kate they weren’t the only family ever to call this house home; ‘It was the sort of place where you’d open a built-in cupboard and find traces of people who’d been there before... an old to-do list, a single shoe.’
‘My mother is a second-hand dealer and she’d go to deceased estates to help families sort through belongings and work out what was valuable and not. I’d go with her sometimes and I felt I was seeing a house without its inhabitants but still wearing the clothing of the inhabitant, which was extremely poignant.’
‘We’d sort through old journals, letters, doctor’s reports, minutiae of someone’s daily life that’s not really valuable to anyone else but paints a picture of them. Even as a child I really got that and was moved by it.’
And now as a writer, Kate remains fascinated by such stories, ‘My favourite thing is the way the past and present touch one another. I’m not interested in the past without the present.’
In all three books, the past leaves an indelible print on the present and it is through the built environment that Kate so evocatively captures her characters’ journeys; ‘The atmosphere of the house pretty much parallels the atmosphere I want the book to have: the feeling it gives the characters when they are inside and the feeling it gives the readers when they inhabit it with the characters.’
The built environment, fully formed before Kate begins writing, also helps her get to know her cast; ‘I learn more about my characters as I watch them go inside and walk around the rooms, I see how they live and breathe there. It’s like a film inside my head, but a film where you can feel things and smell things. The atmosphere is so alive and I just write that down as I’m experiencing it.’
When reading The Distant Hours, it’s hard not to feel transported into a ‘whispering’ castle that ‘bore the unmistakeable signature of stillness... a depth of aloneness – loneliness almost – cloaking me’.
Or feel anxious; ‘the ominous creep beneath my skin? Perhaps it was only that a gust of autumn chill came then, seething beneath the door, angering the lock so that the key fell to the floor.’
When Edie, the young woman who comes to visit the castle, ends up having to stay the night Kate skilfully conveys the oppression and fear she feels; ‘Things are otherwise when the world is black. Insecurities and hurts, anxieties and fears grow teeth at night. Particularly when one is sleeping in a strange, old castle with a storm outside.’
But what about when one is sleeping in her own art-deco era home amongst the hills, antique shops, cafes and workers cottages of Paddington in Brisbane? ‘The atmosphere of my home is definitely created by sounds from outside’, says Kate. ‘The possums and turkeys on the roof, so clumsy and loud, the possums sneaking under the eaves and running under our ceilings, branches scratching against windows.’
‘But after a boiling hot, humid day, one of the best sounds is those big, fat raindrops starting to fall on the corrugated iron roof... and a vivid childhood memory would have to be the noise of the iron roof contracting under the really hot sun.’
Since becoming a mother, Kate feels she has been searching for ‘the house’; ‘The one where your children will look back and think “that’s where I grew up, that’s where I skinned my knee, those are the stairs we fell down, this is where we had Christmas”, all those markers of a human life. I don’t know that I have found that house yet. Maybe it doesn’t exist or maybe it’s a dream.’
Or perhaps she has already found it; ‘Home really comes to life with the sound of my husband playing the piano and my children making noise. Suddenly I’ll turn around to see a seven year old wearing rollerblades inside or I’ll hear the sound of little bottoms sliding down wooden stairs... All the people I love most are within its walls, making noise, being themselves and living their lives.’
Much the same as her characters really.
For more information about Kate Morton’s novels, visit her website here.
To read her journal, click here.
Author image © Fiona Harding
Book cover images courtesy of Allen & Unwin