Book Review: The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

Even if you haven’t read Jane Eyre, you’ll still be able to follow the twisting plot of Diane Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale.  But if you have read Jane Eyre, and especially if you love Jane Eyre, then you’ll appreciate the homage this book is to the gothic gem.  A governess, a tragic fire, the moors, a lunatic secretly housed in a scary old house – many elements of Bronte’s classic picked up, rearranged, and deposited back into this spellbinding book.

The premise of the story is this:  internationally revered (yet notoriously reclusive) author Vida Winter has contacted quiet bookseller and amateur biographer Margaret Lea to write the scoop of the century – a “truthful” telling of Ms. Winter’s life story.  Margaret has her own reasons for wanting to refuse – namely, that she herself is pretty reclusive – but upon reading one of Ms. Winter’s books for the first time in her life, Margaret is entranced by the woman’s power over words.  What kind of life could feed such talent?  And why hasn’t Ms. Winter shared the truth of it before?

Margaret accepts the invitation and joins Ms. Winter at her grand, dark estate on the moors.  At this point in the novel, with the dictation of Winter’s story to Margaret, Setterfield begins to weave together the landscapes of the past and the present – the stichings of Ms. Winter’s life and Margaret’s own knowledge of love, loss, and the concept of “truth.”  I appreciated the smooth transitions between the two worlds – many authors have been less successful with this approach.  But there was nothing jarring or contrived about how the perspectives and stories switched back and forth; it was seemless and offered much in terms of a deeper revelation into the story.

Three plot devices did distract me a bit from the beauty of the writing and the quality of the story.  First and second:  ghost and twin.  Both of these themes are intrinsic to the understanding of this book, but I did feel that Setterfield laid it on a bit thick (just my opinion).  A little less could have gone a lot further with me.  And third:  the unsettling relationship between a brother in the sister was, well, unsettling.  I made my peace with that by recognizing there was nothing descriptive or graphic whatsoever in describing their relationship – it was all inference and innuendo.  Still, not my favorite part of the story.

This book is drama and mystery and suspense.  Darkness and whispers.  Labyrinthine garden and hallways.  It is also, ultimately, about family and yearning for love.  And, I think, about second chances.  The writing is beautiful and offers a lovely ode to booklovers of all shapes and sizes.  Setterfield’s Margaret asks rhetorically, “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.”  I would answer to Margaret, yes, I know exactly how that feels.  This time thanks to your creator.

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