The Thirteenth Tale

The Thirteenth Tale Book Cover

Author: Diane Setterfield
#1 New York Times Bestseller
Original Publication: 2006
Genre: Fiction (Gothic)

What a wonderful story! Margaret Lea is an unassuming amateur biographer who works in her father’s antiquarian bookshop. A loner with an emotionally absent mother, she has spent all her life escaping into books. Her biographies are about the historical underdog – those whom she has become acquainted with via her father’s collection of ancient manuscripts, diaries, and unsung works; and she brings the long-dead unknown to glorious life on the page. It is for this reason (her focus on writing about the unknown) that she is surprised when she receives a letter from Miss Vida Winter. Vida Winter is the world’s greatest living author, who may have sold even more copies of her work over her lifetime than the Bible – “Say what you like about the word of the Lord; his sales figures are notoriously unreliable.”

Margaret balks at the invitation, not because of Miss Winter’s level of fame in comparison to her usual subjects, but because Vida Winter is a mystery. She has given hundreds of interviews over the course of her career “My genius is not so fragile that it must be shut away”, but when it comes to the inevitable questions about herself; she’s cooperative but her answers are always lies. Not lies, stories. After all, storytelling is her craft, and there is nothing more telling than a good story. As a result, no one knows who Vida Winter is, or where she came from, or even what her real name is. Margaret prides herself on dealing in the truth, and she doesn’t trust for a moment that Vida Winter will be willing to offer any.

Margaret is also wholly unfamiliar with Miss Winter’s work, not being in the habit of reading any contemporary fiction. “After all, there are far more books in the world than one can read in a lifetime, and one must draw the line somewhere.” The night she receives the invitation, however, she can’t sleep and she sneaks into the bookshop to borrow something to read. It is here that she comes upon Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, by none other than Vida Winter, and in the locked cabinet reserved for her father’s most priceless pieces! Intrigued, she picks it up and falls in love with every word. Indeed, Vida’s writing is described so in the novel that you wish she were a real-life author, so that you might read her work as well.

Even as Margaret falls in love with the book, however, it doesn’t escape her attention that the book contains but twelve tales, not thirteen. Her father informs her that the reason the book is so valuable is that the error was realized after publishing – perhaps an oversight by the company in not including the last story, perhaps a trick or miscalculation by the author, and all of the copies save a few were recalled. The book was republished as Tales of Change and Desperation, but the error was never forgotten, and speculation over what the thirteenth tale may have been fuels Miss Winter’s fame and mystery.

What I enjoyed most about this novel was that it’s necessarily an homage to the written word, and how the dead are preserved in ink on paper. The language used is a feast, and I found myself re-reading sentences and entire passages, savoring them. It’s a Gothic mystery in the vein of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, and timeless in the sense that the author never gives any inkling when the story took place. It could be now, or it could be a hundred years ago. Margaret agrees to meet with Vida on the condition that she tell the truth, and Vida agrees to tell the truth on the condition that Margaret allow the story to unfold as stories are intended – no peeking, no questions, no cheating, no looking ahead. The tale itself is not what Margaret could have expected in her wildest dreams.

Bother if: You’re a lover of books, classic literature, or simply a great story. I thought this was a very good read.

Don’t bother if: You’re bothered by implications of murder, incest, rape, arson, etc. The author does not feel the need to spell these themes out in detail (and indeed does not need to), but they are certainly implied, even subtly. She is, however, as good at ‘saying something without actually saying it’ as anyone I’ve ever read, so it doesn’t come across as gory details.

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  • Just finished this book last night and ‘stumbled’ on your blog today 🙂

    I had very much the same reactions to The Thirteenth Tale as you did it seems!
    I was also very relieved to know that it wasn’t just me and that I hadn’t just spaced off the time frame this happened in. I kept thinking…surely they said… i must not be paying attention.

    And I agree 100% ; if this wasn’t the best example of ‘show don’t tell’ writing every I’ll eat my hat!! Master of implication!

    Great review!!!

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