The Thirteenth Tale By Diane Setterfield
9 out of 10
Reclusive author Vida Winter, famous for her collection of twelve enchanting stories, has spent the past six decades penning a series of alternate lives for herself. Now old and ailing, she is ready to reveal the truth about her extraordinary existence and the violent and tragic past she has kept secret for so long. Calling on Margaret Lea, a young biographer troubled by her own painful history, Vida disinters the life she meant to bury for good. Margaret is mesmerized by the author’s tale of gothic strangeness—featuring the beautiful and willful Isabelle, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline, a ghost, a governess, a topiary garden, and a devastating fire. Together, Margaret and Vida confront the ghosts that have haunted them while becoming, finally, transformed by the truth themselves.
What I Loved
- Beautiful, almost classic writing
The Thirteenth Tale is written in a dancing, imagery-filled prose that I just couldn’t help but love and admire. In fact, after just the first chapter, I found myself pining for more novels like this one. The words, by themselves, were enough to captivate me, and the fact that they could also create such a powerful storyline was impressive. It was refreshing to see an author that is dedicated to both story and craft.
- An unpredictable storyline
The story was more cunning than I initially took it for. As always, I tried to outsmart it and predict what would happen next, but the writing directed my thoughts so naturally (sometimes in the wrong direction) that my predictions were only sporadically accurate. The elusive nature of the story captivated my interest and added suspense as I read.
- Powerful imagery and syntax allows you to live the story alongside the characters
Through an ingenious use of “show, don’t tell,” Diane Setterfield helps her readers understand that they are intelligent and capable of drawing their own conclusions, without a lot of hand-holding. Fiction readers don’t always experience this kind of empowerment, so it was easy for me to snatch up the author’s clues, analyze them against my own experience, and try to work out my own conclusions alongside the characters. As in real life, there were many times when my realizations about characters or events would chill me to the bone. There were also times when I was left to wonder if my perceptions were completely off-base. Through a limited selection of information, the author allows readers to feel as though the story they are reading is reality, which adds volumes to the reading experience.
- Explores the book-reader relationship in depth
Underneath the main story arc is an incredibly eye-opening exploration of the relationship between story and reader. The book captures, in vivid emotion, what it feels like to enter the world of a story, let it consume you, and develop a very real relationship with the story as a result. Several of the story’s characters are avid book lovers who work their way through their story experience. The reader watches the story experiences of these characters while simultaneously working through her own story experience. So you get to watch the characters from the outside, see the main character from the inside, and feel and observe your own personal experience—all at the same time. To be that aware of your reading experience, what it means to you, and how it relates to others is unbelievable.
What Gave Me Trouble
- Some of Margaret’s (the main character’s) conclusions are hard to believe
Throughout the book, I felt the conclusions of the characters were usually spot on; yet there were a few times when the main character would suddenly jump to and stick with a conclusion that seemed so completely random to me. In those moments, the magic would disperse, and I would feel some irritation toward the author. Was this a moment of laziness or just lack of insight? In her defense, sometimes we come to conclusions like that in real life. Our minds make the connection subconsciously and the connection works, even if it seems completely random to others.
- Margaret’s behavior doesn’t always seem realistic
Margaret, the main character, has led quite a reclusive life. She has a very solid relationship with her father but she has a slippery relationship with her mother and doesn’t have a lot of interaction with anyone else. And most of her time has been devoted to her books. For this reason, I assumed that she would be a bit shy and awkward with outside characters. I was okay with the idea that Margaret was a very self-assured character, but she seemed a bit too confident and practiced in certain social situations. There were moments when she said the perfect thing to defend herself or to ease awkwardness, and I couldn’t figure out how a person like her would have known what to say in that instance. I suppose it made me question whether our ability to interact well with others is gained through practice or whether it is possible to just know what to do inherently.
A Warning or Two
This story does touch on some very emotionally stirring, creepy, or difficult issues, so be prepared. At the same time, these issues have a way of sucking you in, because I for one had never seen them conveyed in quite this way before. The author was so subtle about them that I couldn’t be certain sometimes if she meant what I thought she meant. It was an absolutely intriguing story, one that makes you think long after it is over.