The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

“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”

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One of the characters in The Thirteenth Tale has a strict rule: start at the beginning. Tell the story in order. Well, all due respect to that awesome character, but I’m going to start at the end. My end, at least. When I had about 60 pages left in the book, I decided to stay in my car after work and finish it there, rather than read the end at home. I knew I would drive myself insane in traffic, knowing this book was just lying there, waiting to be read. So I stayed in my car. My boss saw me. It was weird.

The Thirteenth Tale is a riveting novel, an exquisite homage to the classic romantic mysteries like Jane Eyre and Rebecca. It’s a modern-day Gothic gem, complete with madness, ghosts, murder, mistaken identities and dark secrets.   I was really surprised when I found out this was Diane Setterfield’s first novel. She’s created one hell of a goal line for herself.

Reclusive, prolific and beloved author Vida Winter has spent decades spinning different tales about herself in interviews, refusing to say anything true about her past. Now, as an old woman confronted by her imminent death, she decides to finally tell her story. She contracts Margaret Lea, a young, amateur biographer to tell her story. Margaret’s skeptical; after all, the woman is an infamous liar. She’s about to refuse the job when Winter lures her in. “Once upon a time…there was a haunted house…a library. Once upon a time there were twins.”

Margaret’s hooked. So was I. Winter tells the tale of the dilapidated Angelfield House, of the incestuous Charles and Isabelle, of their wild twins who grow up in chaos and squalor and speak in their own language. She talks about the fire, the doctors who only made things worse, and the unexplained phenomena. It’s riveting.

Unfortunately, the novel has a weak spot and that weak spot is our poor narrator, Margaret. She has her own secrets, secrets that are supposed to explain how she became such a solitary and lonely woman. But (and I’m trying to be vague here) I thought her secret was pretty dumb, and I couldn’t really relate to a woman who would let that have such a strong hold in her life. I found myself getting more and more annoyed reading the Margaret-centric chapters. Just give me more Vida Winter, dammit!

But Margaret’s nonsense isn’t enough to stop me from strongly recommending this book. The Thirteenth Tale is totally engrossing and beautifully written. It’s also a book for people who love books. Setterfield’s love for literature shines through on every page, and it made me so damn happy to read something I’ve always tried to explain to people.

“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.” 

 

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