The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield)

A gothic suspense novel with echoes from several Victorian novels. The familiar device of a “story within a story” is employed, and sometimes it even contains another story. This story-telling tradition strongly reminds the reader of earlier classic tales. In fact the “rule of threes” goes throughout this book echoing its fairytale feel. There is the structure of the book itself, “Beginnings, Middles and Endings”. There are three generations in the earlier saga. This is the author’s first novel, and promises well if she stops being so rooted in the gothic canon and makes a bold leap into the unknown and the supernatural she is clearly so drawn to.  

The settings and characters are familiar to us from earlier books too. A musty library in a decrepit old house with rambling gardens, grotesque ancients, the impressionable young woman, the worthy servants, the governess, unearthly children, generations of twins, the dependable doctor, the stuffy lawyer, ghostly apparitions and strong hints that all is not what it appears to be. The novel starts strongly with a chapter that is every bibliophile’s dream. Margaret Lea is an introverted young woman, living and working in her father’s antiquarian bookshop. The musty atmosphere of the bookshop and her life is powerfully depicted. There are descriptions here which are impressive:

“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.”

Which reader would not relate to that feeling? But this story cannot really stay there, even though we have an intriguing situation already, as it is clearly depicted from the start that Margaret’s mother is reclusive, unwell and has no real relationship with anybody, least of all her daughter. But another element is brought in straightaway. Margaret Lea is requested by a strange handwritten letter to write a biography. The letter is from Vida Winter, a famous novelist who has notoriously never told the truth about herself in all her many interviews, so that there are dozens of unreliable accounts. Margaret is an odd choice, only previously having published short snippets and biographical articles.

She knows nothing about the works of this author – or any modern authors – but is intrigued and immediately starts reading Vida Winter’s works. She is surprised to be spellbound by the novels, and what finally decides her is one book which only has 12 tales, although the title is “Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation”. Questioning her father, it is revealed that this is a rare, perhaps the only, copy in existence. There is a mystery surrounding “The Thirteenth Tale” as the only copies including this story were pulled by the publisher, subsequent editions were retitled, but the general public always remembered the original title and many book-lovers had sought an explanation.

Of course this is now an irresistible proposition, and Margaret accepts. Have you spotted the first gigantic, explicit coincidence? Of course Margaret has to work in an antiquarian bookshop to be privy to this book. It is not possible that her employer would know that she had access to this sole copy. And the name “Winter”? Who does that make the reader think of in a novel with an oldfashioned feel, where the heroine so far is a nervous young woman about to set foot in an enormous old mansion inhabited by an imposing elderly woman? Of course – Mrs de Winter. Just twist the characters a little and you have it.

Again, the early part of the descriptions, where Margaret Lea meets the author are a joy to read. The mansion was old and had been opulent. The reader has an impression that it was overstuffed with furniture and heavy material, even upon the walls. The description is evocative and sensuous. Then Margaret finds the library: “The other rooms were thick with the corpses of suffocated words: here in the library you could breathe. Instead of the fabric it was a room made of wood.” At this point she meets her employer, and it is absolutely clear that yes, this is a gothic novel in the true tradition.

It must be said though, that it is rather heavyhanded. We are still very early on in the novel and it is beginning to feel derivative. The reader has espied references to “Jane Eyre”, “Wuthering Heights” and “Rebecca”, and when Vida begins the tale of her life story “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Woman in White” come instantly to mind. Just as a precaution though, to really hammer it home, Setterfield mentions four of these books in the narrative; in fact there are continual rather irritating refences to “Jane Eyre”. It is a leitmotif, and evidently Setterfield wants to pay homage to the Brontes, but more subtle references would have been more enjoyable for the reader.

This gothic novel is an enjoyable quick read. It is however very melodramatic; a novel of sensation. A reader who has not thrilled to “The Turn of the Screw” or been caught up in sensationalist Bronte effects may well not enjoy this novel. Because of the explicit references to earlier classic gothic novels, the reader has to assume this is a tribute to them, rather than a pastiche or unconscious imitation. In the end though, one feels that there is little originality or credibility. The reader deduces that it is set in the recent past. But the viewpoint character is scarcely believable in the modern age. It might grab you, depending on your temperament.

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