A proper book tells a tale which sweeps you up, tumbles your emotions around, and then sets you down hours later, a changed reader. Dianne Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale does just that, and it does it in the twisting style of the Victorian Gothic story.
Set sometime in the 20th century (I thought ’50s, an online reader felt it was the ’70s, you can make your own call), the story is as straight forward as a Fusilli Bucati Corti noodle, sure it’s got a direction but it’s got its twists along the way. Margaret Lea is a youngish woman who’s grown up in her family bookstore, a childhood that has left on her the mark of the weight of the stories we tell. A few pages in, her quiet, almost sad, life is shaken to the core when she receives a request from Vida Winter, the most popular writer in the world. Now the novel begins to spin the life story of Ms. Winter, a story in the vein of the Brontës and their contemporaries. As the story of the octogenarian writer unfolds itself, so does the story of Maragaret Lea, a personal, tragic, Woolfian story.
Now, I will not say that Ms. Setterfield is a particularly brilliant writer (as one reader pointed out on Goodreads– she’s quite fond of repeating phrases, particularly “hot, sweet tea”) but she does have quite the intricate brain in her skull. The myriad of subtle twists and turns that Ms. Winter’s personal history takes, the secrets that are quietly revealed, are cunning and full of misdirection.
She also does something that I personally feel is quite important when writing mysteries. I don’t know about you, but I think that writers need to let us figure somethings out for ourselves. Not the whole enchilada, of course, just little plot points that, when worked out, make us go, “Oh! I am clever, aren’t I?” For example, the information revealed to us on page 349 was something that I was speculating at a few chapters earlier, though the true implications completely shocked me. The fact that I was able to guess made me feel all the more engaged in the novel, made it more relatable.
You really can’t read a review of The Thirteenth Tale without hearing comparisons to the great Victorian Gothics and it does raise the question of whether it’s a worthy comparison. Well, I’m going to cop out of answering that by saying: It’s worth making your own call. I mean, it has the style and personally I found it gripping, but I don’t want to assert anything that I can’t prove. So, pick it up, read it yourself, make up your own mind.
The Thirteenth Tale. Diane Setterfield. 2006. Atria Books.