The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The cover of The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is just as elusive and curious as the plot. The book explores loss, identity, psychology and manipulation. It’s a story about a pair of twins, two people who are at once the very same and poles apart. It is an analysis of death and tragedy irreversibly altering the lives of those left behind. It’s a meta-literary approach to storytelling. Basically, it is one hell of a book.

Summary: Our narrator, Margaret Lea, is commissioned to write a biography of ageing writer Miss Vida Winter, possibly the most famous author alive, whose whole identity and life story are a mystery to her readers.
Vida Winter shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden, from her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Today, Angelfield House stands abandoned and forgotten. It was once the imposing home of the March family – fascinating, manipulative Isabelle, Charlie her brutal and dangerous brother, and the wild, untamed twins, Emmeline and Adeline.
 Margaret carefully records Miss Winter’s account and finds herself deeply immersed in the troubling story, even as Vida Winter’s revelations about her fears bring Margaret dangerously close to the ghosts of her own past.
My thoughts: Diane Setterfield has masterfully breathed life into her characters. Sad, tired Margaret, curiously cheerful Aurelius, cynical secretive Miss Winter and the Rebecca-esque characters we never really meet – from Isabelle to Margaret’s sister: these are people I’ll never forget. Setterfield’s writing captures the pain and almost uncontrollable attachment in blood relationships, the unbreakable ties between siblings and the inevitable disappointments that go hand in hand with family. 
In her 2006 debut novel, Diane Setterfield has effortlessly recreated a Victorian gothic mood and the book reads like a homage to favourite classics, which it references – Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Wuthering Heights. In its wit, the writing resembles that of Austen and the bleakness is reminiscent of Dickens. All her insight and quips about writing and story, through the exotic voice of Vida Winter, make you question Setterfield’s first-timer status.
My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with truth herself. What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story? What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney? When the lightning strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails? No. 
When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don’t expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid. What you need are the plump comforts of a story. The soothing, rocking safety of a lie.

The book is about the ghosts of memory; about prisons that you build around yourself with lies and half truths, fear, diffidence and secrecy; about the illusion of safety you cling on to, when freedom appears to be too big a loss of control. It’s about overcoming these and setting yourself free, and in many ways, despite all the horrors of the lives of Margaret and Vida Winter, the book gives hope.
But of course, it’s the meticulous detail and the gripping suspense that make this book worth your time. I read it in a day today: after a month of struggling through one supposed thriller, this book grabbed my attention on the first page and didn’t let go till the last. It had the very same effect on me as Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, but the tension here is even more icy, the resolution more surprising. If you like a good bit of guesswork and uncanny twists of plot, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield will be a fairly satisfying read.
It has put me in the perfect mood, if a little late, for the R.I.P. Challenge. If there’s one thing I enjoy about these book blogger challenges it’s not knowing which book I’ll stumble into next. Any horror, mystery recommendations?

9 thoughts on “The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield”

  1. Oh, I loved this, I've read it a few years ago and it was great. I'm so glad to see you enjoyed it too. It's perfect for R.I.P.

    If you want horror I recommend "The Rats", or "The Secret of Crickley Hall", both by James Herbert. The former is disturbing but it's a very short book. The latter is more atmospheric but chunky.
    Also "Shadow on the Sun" by Richard Matheson, excellent book. I've reviewed all of them on my blog if you want to have a look. This one reminds me of your published story, The Dew Eagle. I think you'll like it.


  2. Divers and Sundry – You should. It's not horror in the strictest sense, thriller would be a better word.

    Delia – I remember your review of Rats! It did sound disturbing. I guess I will read Shadow on the Sun. I like Richard Matheson's writing and I am too delighted by that comparison not to. 🙂


  3. What's up with all these creepy looking kids in horror stories? Yeesh.

    I definitely need to read more horror/thrillers but don't know where to start. This one sounds good though, thanks for the recommendation.


  4. Jason – These kids aren't as creepy as some, though. I don't particularly like thrillers, but these literary kinds have grown on me. It's worth a try. 🙂


  5. This book sounds like it has the right combination of mood and story. I have to agree that there are quite a lot of creepy kids on book covers these days.


  6. ebookclassics – The one that creeps me out in particular is the girl on the cover of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. So many good reviews and the Tim Burton movie adaptation coming up but I still can't bring myself to read that book!


  7. I read this when it came out and the hype was at its max, I remember finding it rather disappointing and wanna-beish. I suppose I was comparing it to Rebecca and all the books it seemed to reference and thought it fell short.


  8. Hey Nishita, that's unfortunate. I love Rebecca, and was glad to read something that came close to having its spirit. I missed the hype entirely, hadn't even heard about this book before!


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