Diane Setterfield: The Thirteenth Tale

by Rachel Baker on October 24, 2009

I was sucked in on the very first page and hooked by page 8.  By page 129, I thought I had the story figured out, and by the last few chapters I was giddy because the author got one, or two, and even three over on me.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield assaulted the reader in me, tied her up, held her hostage and forced her to eat the most wonderfully decadent desserts.  Odd metaphor, I know; but when I closed the book, that was the feeling of happy fulfillment I had.  She tricked me! You can’t imagine the joy that brings to me.

At the very end of page 8, there’s a passage that sums up the experience of reading this 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.

What’s the story about?  Well, the story is the Thirteenth Tale.  The book is about how a girl, who more or less co-owns an antiquity book store with her father, receives a letter from a writer no one has every been able to get a true interview out of offering her the opportunity to write her biography.  In the letter the author tells the story about a young man in a brown suit who comes to interview her, listens to the stories she makes up about her life and continues to tell her “tell me the truth.” Our book lover hasn’t actually read the author and knows nothing about her, but is willing to ask her three questions that can be researched and if she tells the truth, our book lover (Margaret) will write her biography.

The first book ever written by Vida Winter (our author) was called Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation.  These stories were spin offs of fairy tales we all know, except there was no thirteenth tale.  The publisher pulled the books almost as soon as they got to the book stores and the book was reprinted with the title Tales of Change and Desperation.  The allusive thirteenth tale became something of conquest for journalists who interviewed Miss Winter, it seems.  This is never said in the book, however, over the course of the story, everyone Margaret talks with associations to Miss Winter wants to know if she’s revealed the thirteenth tale.

There are subtle hints foreshadowing the twists and turns of the story Miss Winters is telling – changes in pronouns, constant referral to Jane Eyre, the season winter, and even a prescription written by a doctor, to name a few. Normally, I pick up on them – and I did. Only this time, I picked up on them incorrectly.  Ms. Setterfield manipulated the words to make my mind’s eye totally believe it was a story I’ve read before and by page 129, I thought the punchline  had been revealed.  Now, I’m telling you page 129, however, there is nothing on that page to make one believe what I believed. That was just the page, my incorrect epiphany happened – the page where a confluence of events molded themselves together to sound like other stories.  Silly me!  There were 277 more pages to go, and with the paragraph at the bottom of page 8 (quoted above), I should have known better.

In the end, the biography never gets written, the man in the brown suit is revealed and the author is not who she says she is…but its close enough.  There’s a dead twin, a dying twin, two twins that are alive and a third being who looks close enough to be a twin.  There’s murder and intimacy (note I said intimacy not sex), psychological disturbances and ghosts.  OH, and!  We get the thirteenth tale – and it is most definitely a tale of change and desperation.

I think its important to tell you something about the genesis of this review.  This book was given to me as a gift, and I normally don’t review books that have been given as gifts – because I don’t want to read them with the thought of a review in the back of my mind However, this book was so good I had to share it, and urge you to read it if you haven’t.  It may not be the type of story you would like but if you are a lover of books, you will completely be touched by the words – you will see yourself in Margaret, and you will probably get sucked in as I did.  I am not a big fan of goth fiction, however, in the search for more of this same type of story, I may actually read more of them.  I say that, but a small part of me feels like, why read any more, when I’ve found a favorite to which I suspect none will compare.  That said, I do think I am now one of a segment of population who is anxiously awaiting Setterfield’s next book.

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