All morning I struggled with the sensation of stray wisps of one world seeping through the cracks of another. Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes — characters even — caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you.
(from The Thirteenth Tale, pages 289-290)
The Thirteenth Tale is a novel after a book lover’s heart. It’s a hard book to describe because there are so many twists and turns, and I don’t want to give anything away. The primary narrator is Margaret Lea, an amateur biographer who works in her father’s antique book shop. Voracious readers like myself won’t have any trouble connecting with her because she talks a lot about her passion for books and all the classics she’s loved over the years. Margaret prefers to read classic novels, so when England’s most famous contemporary author requests her as a biographer, she doesn’t know what to expect.
Vida Winter is an eccentric author whose most famous book, Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, actually featured only 12 tales, making the world curious about her and the missing tale; the lone copy sold before the mistake was caught and “thirteen” was removed from the title is in the possession of Margaret’s father. Margaret isn’t familiar with Miss Winter’s work, but she knows that Miss Winter is a consummate storyteller, as any journalist who inquires about her past is told a fanciful story that is obviously not the truth.
Margaret agrees to hear the story of the elderly and ill writer, but naturally, she is skeptical about Miss Winter’s ability and willingness to tell the truth and first asks for three details that can be verified. The narrative then shifts between Vida’s story of the unbelievably odd Angelfield family and Margaret’s research, which takes her to the ruins of the home where Vida says her personal story ended and her life as Vida Winter, author, began.
Although the book started a little slow — I was anxious to “meet” Vida Winter — Diane Setterfield’s beautiful prose hooked me from the first page. There were times when I felt there were too many details cluttering the narrative, such as the few paragraphs devoted to Margaret sharpening her pencils before sitting down to transcribe the stories she’d heard from Vida that day. Yet, Setterfield has a way with words, making me feel the emotions and see the images of which she writes and bringing the eccentric and deeply troubled characters to life. Aside from all the talk about books and reading, I wasn’t that interested in Margaret’s personal story and the family secret that has haunted her since childhood. I just didn’t buy the depth of emotion she felt. I almost wish that Vida’s story was the only story told, but I understand the purpose Margaret served in tying up some of the loose ends in Vida’s tale.
The Thirteenth Tale is somewhat of a gothic novel, with the creepy characters, a house that seems unwilling to let go of its inhabitants, and even some ghosts. Jane Eyre is mentioned frequently, and even though I missed many of the parallels between this novel and Charlotte Brontë’s while I was reading, in hindsight they aren’t too hard to pick out. I also didn’t figure out all of the twists beforehand, and wanting to solve the mystery of who Vida Winter was before she became a famous writer made me not want to put the book down. A passion for stories and whether the truth is best made known are central to The Thirteenth Tale, and readers will find that they won’t easily forget the unique, well drawn, and complex characters created by Setterfield.
Disclosure: The Thirteenth Tale is from my personal library.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.