Monday, November 12, 2007

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

This is a review for MotherTalk.

I love books. I mean, I really love books. I just moved recently and I had forty boxes of books. And that was after giving away 5 or 6 grocery bags full. It's pretty safe to say I am a book junky. I'm also picky. I don't like books that broadcast the plot on page three. I don't like books that have stilted dialog or ridiculoulsy complicated plots. I can be a bit of a snob when it comes to books and I'm unapologetic about it.

When I opened my copy of The Thirteenth Tale I had no preconceived notions about the plot. I hadn't read a review, I didn't know anyone who was reading it and had never even heard of it. It didn't take more than five pages before I was immersed. I fell into this book and didn't want to come out. This passage was what got me:

"As one tends the graves of the dead, so I tend the books. I clean them, do minor repairs, keep them in good order. And every day I open a volume or two, read a few lines or pages, allow the voices of the forgotten dead to resonate inside my head. Do they sense it, these dead writers, when their books are read? Does a pinprick of light appear in their darkness? Is their soul stirred by the feather touch of another mind reading theirs? I do hope so. For it must be very lonely being dead."

Margaret Lea works in her father's antiquarian and rare books shop. She dabbles in writing biographies, always of obscure people, those that would otherwise have been forgotten.

She recieves a letter one day from Vida Winter, a famous, and famously evasive, aging author. Miss Winter wants Margaret to write her biography after having read Margaret's biography of two brothers. Margaret is reluctant at first, since every interview Miss Winter has ever given has contained stories and nothing close to the truth. But she agrees to the task and travels to the Yorkshire to write this woman's tale.

The Thirteenth Tale is a ghost story. There are ghosts that are obvious: When Margaret was born, she had a conjoined twin. They were separated and her twin died. Margaret feels this loss sharply and often sees her twin when she's going about her every day activities. There are ghosts that are teased out in the process of telling the story.

As she is writing her biography, Margaret walks the Angelfield estate where Vida was raised as Addeline Angelfield, along with her twin sister Emmeline. The girls were left to run wild after their mother was committed to an asylum and their uncle went mad with grief. There are not-so-subtle hints at incest between the girls mother, Isabelle, and their Uncle Charles. There is a half-deaf housekeeper and a gruff but kind gardener who look after the children, but they have little control over the girls' behaviour. A governess is eventually hired, with somewhat disasterous results. A ghost, abandoned babies and a massive fire round out the gothic notes of the story.

There are nods to Jane Eyre and Rebecca in The Thirteenth Tale; it weaves a similar spell over the reader. Vida Winter's hidden life story proves to be much more fascinating than the tales she wove to journalists over the years. Anyone who loves reading with a visceral, nearly animal pleasure is sure to enjoy this book. It tips you headlong into the story, allowing you to completely suspend disbelief, which is, in my opinion, the sign of an excellent storyteller.

1 comment:

sam said...

i'm reading this book right now. and i agree... the first five pages and i can't pull my self out, nor do i want to.