The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Published by Atria Books
Published on: September 12 2006
Genres: Paranormal Mystery
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When Margaret Lea opened the door to the past, what she confronted was her destiny.
All children mythologize their birth... So begins the prologue of reclusive author Vida Winter’s collection of stories, which are as famous for the mystery of the missing thirteenth tale as they are for the delight and enchantment of the twelve that do exist.
The enigmatic Winter has spent six decades creating various outlandish life histories for herself—all of them inventions that have brought her fame and fortune but have kept her violent and tragic past a secret. Now old and ailing, she at last wants to tell the truth about her extraordinary life. She summons biographer Margaret Lea, a young woman for whom the secret of her own birth, hidden by those who loved her most, remains an ever-present pain. Struck by a curious parallel between Miss Winter’s story and her own, Margaret takes on the commission.
As Vida disinters the life she meant to bury for good, Margaret is mesmerized. It is a tale of gothic strangeness featuring the Angelfield family, including the beautiful and willful Isabelle, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline, a ghost, a governess, a topiary garden and a devastating fire.
Margaret succumbs to the power of Vida’s storytelling but remains suspicious of the author’s sincerity. She demands the truth from Vida, and together they confront the ghosts that have haunted them while becoming, finally, transformed by the truth themselves.
The Thirteenth Tale is a love letter to reading, a book for the feral reader in all of us, a return to that rich vein of storytelling that our parents loved and that we loved as children. Diane Setterfield will keep you guessing, make you wonder, move you to tears and laughter and, in the end, deposit you breathless yet satisfied back upon the shore of your everyday life.
So here’s my problem with gothic literature: it’s so habitually grotesque that it’s predictable.
If there’s not incest, there’s a crazy wife in the attic. If there’s not a crazy wife in the attic, there’s a murderous illegitimate son who’s not right in the head. Or conjoined twins. Or a dying gypsy’s curse. Or something equally unsettling.
So even if you guess the HEP Big Secret wrong, whatever it actually is isn’t going to make a dent. B/c you’ve already imagined the worst. B/c gothic.
ALSO . . . I don’t like it.
If I lived in the time of traveling freak shows, I would not attend. Not my bag.
You: So why did you read it?
Me: B/c didn’t realize it was gothic until I’d already started it.
You: Why didn’t you quit?
Me: SCHADENFREUDE. #thestruggleisreal
Plus, the concept is friggin amazing: England’s most beloved author, who’s written 56 novels in 56 years, has zealously guarded her privacy. She made her pen name her legal name, and has threatened any would-be biographers with lawsuits until they backed down.
Interviewing her has become a kind of rite of passage for journalists, b/c she gives a different version of her life story to every, single one of them. <——how cool is that?
But now she’s dying, so she contacts our MC (Margaret), an amateur biographer who’s grown up in her father’s rare bookshop (a bibliophile’s DREAM), and employs Margaret to write her life story before she leaves this mortal coil.
After that is when it gets weird. And gross. And creepy. And messed-the-eff-up.
Man alive, these people are CRAZY.
Including Margaret, who has an unhealthy fixation on her dead-shortly-after-birth twin sister.
Genre preferences aside, there’s no denying that this is a beautifully written book:
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.
It’s also mindbendingly clever.
The line between mental illness and the supernatural is so thin, so frail, so indecipherable, that even now, days later, I can’t stop thinking about it—were the ghosts real, or did they only exist in her mind?
I. DON’T. KNOW. *EDVARD MUNCH FACE*
THE THIRTEENTH TALE by Diane Setterfield is not a book you read then forget. It stays with you, taking up brain space, whispering incessantly, like the five notes of a song you can’t place, but can’t escape. It’s beautiful and terrible. And even if you avoid gothic novels like I do, this one . . . This one deserves to be made an exception. Highly recommended (with trepidation).