Diane Setterfield

"The Thirteenth Tale"

(Reviewed by Lori Lamothe DEC 15, 2008)

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

I just finished reading Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale and was surprised to discover that the book has been the subject of a lot of hype over the past couple of years. Well, let me revise that. That the book would receive a great deal of attention seems perfectly predictable, based on the type of story it is and the quality of the writing. I suppose what I found a bit startling was the fact that I had remained entirely oblivious to the book’s existence up until about a week ago, when I happened to spot it on display at my local supermarket.

Ordinarily I am not the sort of person who buys books at the same time that I purchase Bisquick and summer squash. For me, buying books usually requires a premeditated trip to the bookstore, during which time I spend a solid couple of hours in search of The Final Purchase. But as I filed toward one of those infuriating self-check-out aisles I spotted The Thirteenth Tale and felt myself drawn to it in much the same way that Richard Dreyfus finds himself compelled to visit Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They say don’t judge a book by its cover—a practice I’ve religiously adhered to for my most of my adult life—but in this case the cover is a pretty good indication of what the reader is in for. Stacked one on top of another, antique books with marbled pages seem to promise a novel that is rich with the old sort of storytelling—the kind of plot-oriented storytelling that forces one to stay up late in order to find out what happens.

Which, as it turns out, is exactly what I did. I set aside the novel I had been reading and plunged into Setterfield’s story, barely coming up for air over the next few days other than to tend to my daughter (kids!) or to fix myself a cup of hot cocoa, a habit I picked up from Margaret Lea, the novel’s narrator. When I finished the last page on Sunday night I had that odd feeling I always get at the end of a book I really like: a sense of satisfaction that the fates of the characters were no longer unknown to me and regret that the book was finished. Flipping to the inside cover in search of other novels by Ms. Setterfield (I never bother with book-jacket chatter until I’ve actually read the book), I was only slightly disappointed to learn that The Thirteenth Tale was a first novel. No doubt Ms. Setterfield, a former academic who turned to writing in her late thirties, will write more novels. And I for one shall be happy to read them.

“Tell the truth,” the journalist in the brown, ill-fitting suit instructs renowned novelist Vida Winter. For the entirety of her career, Ms. Winter has done exactly the opposite, leading journalists and fans on a wild goose chase that brought them no closer to the real woman than the remade fairy tales she writes for a living. But something about the journalist’s request for truth affects the reclusive Ms. Winter; over the years she can’t forget him and as her death becomes an imminent event she decides to finally tell her story. She chooses the unlikely Margaret Lea, a bookish woman who has written a few slim volumes on minor figures, to be her biographer. Though Margaret is initially reluctant to assume the role Ms. Winter has cast her in, she becomes increasingly drawn into Ms. Winter’s tale.

The Thirteenth Tale is an unabashedly gothic novel. There are multiple sets of twins, decaying mansions, fires, ghosts, mirrors, madness and plenty of family secrets. It is set on the English moors and there are numerous allusions throughout the novel to other gothic novels, particularly Jane Eyre. Not only does Charlotte Bronte’s most famous novel symbolize the value of books for both Margaret and Vida, but it also serves an actual piece of physical evidence. Though the book is written in contemporary language, the characters are distinctly Nineteenth Century. This is particularly true of the secondary cast, which includes a nearly blind housekeeper, a scientifically-minded governess, a kindly knitter named Mrs. Love, a taciturn gardener, a giant with a flare for culinary arts, and a cat named Shadow. None of the characters—including Margaret and Ms. Winter—seem quite real, but I believe that this is an intentional stylistic choice that adds to the escapist flavor of the novel. Nor did the characters’ unreality prevent me from becoming engrossed in their stories. In the final chapter, when Ms. Lea ties up all possible loose ends, I was relieved to learn the fate of the aforementioned governess. Which isn’t to say it was a good fate or a bad one, but simply to illustrate that Nineteenth-Century methods of characterization don’t necessarily preclude 21st-Century appeal.

The plotting of the novel is also unabashedly gothic. Following the thread of Ms. Winter’s story, told over several months, Margaret navigates her way through a labyrinth of bizarre events until she reaches the final truth of the tale—without which nothing quite makes sense. Did I guess the secret at the heart of Ms. Winter’s past? It hardly matters. As is true of most mysteries, what is most important about this book is not so much the revelation at the end but the thrill of the 400-plus-page ride Setterfield takes the reader on. Yet, like Margaret’s propensity for cocoa, there’s also something enormously comforting about spending an evening enveloped in Ms. Setterfield’s tale. Perhaps, for me, the sense of comfort derives from all the childhood associations that come with the book. As I read I couldn’t help feeling the same way I felt when I discovered Jane Eyre for the first time, or Great Expectations, or—more recently—A.S. Byatt’s Possession.

In another incarnation, I once spent an evening in Moscow with a Russian scholar. During the course of our conversation I mentioned a book I was reading in a rather unenthusiastic voice. After I had finished discussing the burgeoning length of time it was taking me to finish the novel, the scholar interrupted me to ask, in his heavily-accented voice, why I was still reading it. “It’s a classic,” I responded, expecting that to be the end of it.

Though this man had read more American classics than I had then or now, he looked perplexed. “So?”

“Well, it’s one of those books I should read,” I tried to explain, adding, “For my writing.” I felt a sense of triumph at this last statement. I had yet to publish a damn thing but the argument still seemed unassailable. If one wanted to write, one had to develop a deep familiarity with all books literary. QED.

He disagreed. With the usual Russian sense of our mortality, he remarked, “There’s not enough time before we die to waste it reading dull books.” At his urging (it didn’t take much) I started something new—and completed it in one marathon session.

I don’t know if The Thirteenth Tale is the kind of book you should read, but if you’re at all fond of gothic fiction I can say with a high degree of certainty that it’s the kind of book that you will want to read once you’ve begun. In fact, it might well be the kind of book you won’t want to put down. At least not unless it’s to make yourself a cup of cocoa.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 592 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Thirteenth Tale at Simon & Schuster



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About the Author:

Diane SetterfieldDiane Setterfield was born in 1964 in Reading and grew up in Theale (both in Berkshire, in the South of England), she attended Theale Green School, and then Bristol University where she studied French Literature. She has taught in various universities in England and France, where she lived for several years.

She left academia in the late '90s, she enjoyed teaching but hated university politics and after five years was still working to pay off the loan she had taken out to fund her PhD. So, she spent her first year as a novelist renovating her house and giving private French lessons to people planning to move to France. At first it was slow going. Two years later, she pulled out her notes and attended a creative writing class. Five years after she embarked on her plan to write a novel, she sent sample chapters to four agents - and the rest is history. Her debut novel became an overnight hit and made her a millionaire.

She lives in North Yorkshire, England with her husband and is working on her second novel.

 

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