Book Review: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Here are a couple of book covers to get a flavor
for the story though we are taught not to judge
a book by it’s cover.
Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise—she doesn’t know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter’s dozens of novels.
Late one night while pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.
As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter’s account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story. Both women will have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets… and the ghosts that haunt them still. (Courtesy of goodreads.com)
I’ve included this cover (left) that reminds me of the book The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and interestingly I feel like both books have a similar haunting quality though they truly are not similar.
Adult Point of View
I was enthralled with Setterfield’s writing! It was so wonderful to delve into The Thirteenth Tale with its buttery rich language. The story line is intriguing as it hints at connections between threads running through Vida Winter’s hidden childhood and Margaret Lea’s suppressed story. Fairly soon into the telling of the stories I was curious to see how the classic tale of Jane Eyre would fit in with the scattered clues that there is an unsolved mystery. Is there madness? A secret wife in an attic? Romance with a Byronic hero? Definitely a fire.
I don’t want to spoil the plot and so I am dropping clues with quotes.
“All children mythologize their birth.” p 26, 357
This quote feels like a universal experience. How can a moment in our personal history be so important and yet forgotten because of our infant state? What we believe about our birth becomes a fictitious story, but it is still our story.
“Vida . From vita, Latin, meaning life. Though I can’t help thinking of French too. Vide in French means empty…What did winter mean to me? One thing only : death.” p 34
“She swallowed. ‘Are you quite sure this is the best way to proceed? I could tell you a ghost story – a rather good one, even if I do say so myself. It might be a better way of getting to the heart of things…’ I shook my head. ‘Tell me you name.’
“She paused, needing to overcome some obstacle within herself, and when she pronounced the name it was with a noticeable neutrality, an utter absence of intonation, as though it were a word in some foreign language she had never applied herself to learning: ‘That name was Adeline March.’” p 49
Since Vida Winter chose her pseudo name for writing and her life it seems it must be significant. Do our names signify who we are, and should they? In fiction, names are carefully thought out by the author, but in this case its the character Margaret who is trying to decipher Vida Winter. Miss Winter claims she will reveal her story, but it will be a struggle because it has been hidden for so long.
“The flesh of her palm was like no flesh I had seen before. Its whitened ridges and purple furrows bore no relation to the pink mound at the base of my fingers, the pale valley of my palm. Melted by fire, her flesh had cooled into an entirely unrecongnizable landscape, like a scene left permanently altered by the passage of a flow of lava. Her fingers did not lie open but were drawn into a claw by the shrunken tightness of the scar tissue. In the heart of her palm, scar within a scar, burn inside burn, was a grotesque mark. It was set very deep in her clutch, so deep that with a sudden nausea I wondered what had happened to the bone that should be there. It made sense of the odd set of the hand at the wrist, the way it seemed to weigh upon her arm as though it had no life of its own. The mark was a circle embedded in her palm, and extending from it, in the direction of the thumb, a short line.
Thinking about it now, I realize that the mark had more or less the form of a Q, but at the time, in the shock of this unexpected and painful act of revealment, it had no such clarity, and it disturbed me the way I would be disturbed by the appearance on a page of English of unfamiliar symbol from a lost and unreadable language…’I'm sorry,’ I heard her say. ‘One gets so used to one’s own horrors, one forgets how they must seem to other people.’” p 53-54
Is the Q a symbol, or the clutching hand, or the fact that Miss Winter has revealed a physical horror so now she can proceed to reveal the emotion horrors of growing up?
“One should always pay attention to ghosts, shouldn’t one, Miss Lea?” p 58
“Do you believe in ghosts, Margaret?” p 188
What are the ghosts? Who sees the ghosts? What do the ghosts reveal?
“But there can be no secrets in a house where there are children.” p 59
Living in a house with many children I would agree with this assessment.
“Did she know I had noticed? I had made no outward sign. But I had noticed. Today Miss Winter had said I.” p 205
How does Adeline adapt and function in the real world, when Charlie disappears, while Emmeline stays in her dream world of twins?
As a warning there are a few scenes that might not be considered appropriate for teens, though the author does not go into too many gory details.
I highly recommend this book. It is Setterfield’s debut novel, which is amazing. In addition to The Night Circus by Morgenstern, this book has a similar quality as Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones being full of layers of intrigue, gothic elements, twists and a touch of the unexplainable.
4.5 out of 5 stars