The Thirteenth Tale
I am not the fastest reader; I like to take my time with a book to research, study the stories’ structure, learn new vocabulary and dwell on the new ideas I find in the pages. My only problem with reading this way is that it takes time away from other books. For a long time, this book sat patiently in my library. I first spied its cover and title a few years ago when it was published in paper. I bought, but it had to wait to be read. Onto my pile of unread books it sat, the pile never shrinks; it only grows.
Finally I read, The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield. I like books to be kept secret from myself; there is little better than opening the first page of a book knowing next to nothing about what is going to occur. So it was when I began reading this story and I quickly learned that Diane Setterfield is a talented author who knows her gothic literature. In a way this book is a revival of what I have come to understand to be traditional gothic literature. What I mean to say is this book feels like you are reading a compilation of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Castle of Wolfenbach and the great satirical gothic novel Northanger Abbey. Like these gothic tales this story is written within the halls of a once great historical house that manifests itself like another character, a character that lives in seclusion and keeps many secrets including the title. What is the thirteenth tale?
The thirteen tale is somewhat like the thirteen floor or the thirteenth room in most hotels in that there is no such existence. In this case, however, superstition has no part. The book begins when a young antiquarian bookseller and part time biographer, Margaret Lea receives a letter from a famous English author, who asks if she will be her biographer. Tell me the truth, is the phrase echoed in the request by the author, named Vida Winter. Margaret knows little about the author as she has a passion for reading novels not of this century. Before she accepts the job she researches Winter’s life and discovers many inconsistencies.
The night she receives the letter she sneaks down into the bookstore she and her father run and finds a book of short stories Winter. Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, by Vida Winter. She takes the book back to her room where she reads and reads and reads. Like the young boy Daniel in “The Shadow of the Wind,” Margaret is stolen away by these stories and gives up an entire evening to finishing the collection, but she is lost when she learns that there are only twelve stories. The missing story combined with the suspicious life of Winter draw her in to the job. So the novel begins with the missing story and continues with why it is missing.
This is a story about stories in the gothic realm. It has ghosts that are not quite ghosts, families that decay in crumbling houses, and a giant that is a fine baker. But as in all good stories we never see what is up ahead and we do not know the truth until the story has been told. I never once guessed right as to what would happen next and when the story was over I felt moved by what had just happened.
I loved the imagery of this book with the places it took me. There is a fine quality to the writing that should be understood and appreciated in the gothic genre. What I like most about this story is how Setterfield, through Ms. Winter, addresses the nature of these types of stories,
“Silence is not a natural environment for stories. They need words. Without them they grow pale, sicken and die. And then they haunt you.”
For more of information on the story, visit this site.