In which I review Diane Setterfield’s novel, The Thirteenth Tale.
All children mythologize their birth. It is a universal trait. You want to know someone? Heart, mind and soul? Ask him to tell you about when he was born. What you get won’t be the truth; it will be a story. And nothing is more telling than a story.
I wasn’t really sure where to begin with this review. This is one of those books where you can tell almost nothing without giving away everything. It’s all so intrinsically wound up into itself, and relies so heavily on mystery. I suppose I might begin with quoting the Goodreads summary (Side note: I finally joined Goodreads today. I’ve been putting it off for some reason because it seemed difficult.)
Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise — she doesn’t know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter’s dozens of novels.
Late one night while pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.
As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter’s account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story.
Both women will have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets… and the ghosts that haunt them still.
Setterfield did a good job of creating a dark atmosphere that just narrowly escapes feeling oppressive. This isn’t a happy book by any means, but it didn’t leave me drained.
And then, technically speaking, the writing is astonishingly beautiful. The descriptions are evocative without being lengthy. The vocabulary is balanced—it’s not an overly challenging read, but I had to look up a couple of words, and it’s very rare that a 21st century book will send me to the dictionary. So A+ for that.
One thing that annoyed me about the book was that it’s quite difficult to determine what time any of it takes place in. It made it feel not-quite-real and sort of disconnected from the real world. I’m letting it slide because it could be that’s what Setterfield was going for. I suppose it would fit with the fairytale aesthetic. (“Once upon a time…” you know.)
Unfortunately, I didn’t love the characters. Everyone was just so strange and unhealthy and disturbed to the point where it started to feel a little like that time when I was eight years old and we drove past a horrific car accident, and I saw this mangled body being loaded into an ambulance, and I couldn’t look away even though I felt nauseated. It’s okay to have odd characters, especially when you’re going for a Gothic feel, but it got a little unnecessary. In this freak-show cast, the only characters I really liked were John-the-Dig and the Missus. Their loving, caring relationship was refreshingly healthy.
That was disappointing, because the most important part of a novel, for me, is the characters.
That said, I would tentatively recommend this book if you love intriguing stories with a lot of mystery and secrets. Something I loved was that it’s not just plot twists that add that element of surprise, there were some characters who surprised me as well. And that’s always refreshing.
Physically, the book is a lovely thing to behold. I love the cover. I love the marbled design of the end papers. I love that without the dust-jacket, it looks like an old book. And I’m a big fan of deckle edges on the right book, and this was definitely a book where it seemed to fit.
Overall, I give it a 2/5. Setterfield used the English language in a masterful way, but there were so many things I didn’t love about it, and even things I hated (I’m being vague, I know, but it’s because I don’t want to give spoilers or colour your perceptions).