The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Washington Square Press (October 9, 2007)
“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic. ”
– The Thirteenth Tale
[2013 note: My review of Setterfield’s follow-up work, Bellman and Black, can be found here.]
Margaret Lea is a young woman who’s grown up surrounded by books. Her father is an antiquarian bookseller, and for as long as she can remember he’s been training her in the profession, never pushing but always encouraging.
One day she receives, out of the blue, a letter from the most famous writer in Britain. Mysterious and reclusive, Vida Winter is a complete enigma. No one knows anything for certain about her life, partly because she’s given dozens of different stories to dozens of people eager for information about her. She’s deliberately set up a smokescreen to ensure her privacy.
But now she wants Margaret to write her biography. Mystified, Margaret at first can’t believe it’s true. She hasn’t even read a word of Winter’s incredibly popular novels, and can’t understand what the fuss is about. Here’s a woman who cut her reading teeth on books like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, after all. What use does she have for popular fiction? When popular fiction arrives at Lea’s Antiquarian Booksellers they give it away to charity. That is, all save a very rare first edition of Winter’s first book, The Thirteenth Tale, a book accidentally printed with only twelve stories. When the publisher realized his mistake he had all the copies recalled and destroyed. All but one, that is, which Margaret’s father purchased and keeps locked away with the rarest of his books.
Margaret, intrigued, takes out The Thirteenth Tale one night and reads it. Surprisingly, she can’t put it down, reading all through the night. Game, set and match to Vida Winter. Margaret is persuaded.
When Margaret arrives at Winter’s home she finds an ill old woman with obviously dyed orange hair. Through a series of interviews Winter begins telling her tale, an absolutely enthralling story with a wonderfully gothic atmosphere, involving twins with a mysterious, and possibly murderous, past. Margaret herself had been a twin, a fact she discovered by accident one day when she found another birth certificate for a baby born on the same day, near the same time as she. Her parents had never told her about her lost sister, but her cold, distant and fragile mother’s behavior toward her seemed to be explained when Margaret learned the truth about her own birth.
Margaret and Vida’s tales somewhat intertwine, though there’s no relation between them. Having been a twin Margaret can feel all the more empathy for Vida’s story, and what starts as a literary assignment soon becomes much more personal as the story goes on.
This book is beautifully written and absolutely draws the reader in. The prose has a Victorian quality to it, though the time in which it’s set is somewhat ambiguous. It’s definitely more modern, but the reader can’t pinpoint an exact date, which adds to the air of mystery. The gothic atmosphere is very well done, as are the two parallel tales of past and present. Definitely a book to keep you up all night, reading to the end to find out the answer to the mystery.
One thing I definitely admire about Setterfield is her avoidance of cliched, trite writing. She doesn’t heap on metaphor after metaphor, nor does she clutter her prose with the sort of ad nauseum detail so many contemporary writers seem to favor. She falls into none of the traps of overwriting, and thank goodness for that!
The criticism I can make is her characters often just miss being fully formed. The mother character, likely made shadowy on purpose, could have actually been sharpened a bit. When she’s absent it’s so easy to forget she even exists as she’s barely outlined at all. The relationship between the mother and Margaret should be a bit more pivotal, in my view, considering it’s meant to mirror the relationship of Vida and her own mother. The other characters, as well, could have used just a bit more emphasis, a bit more focus, to make the reader care more deeply about them.
Still, overall, an excellent effort and a book I will definitely recommend, especially to those who enjoy historical fiction and also books with a literary mystery theme. Very nicely done.