Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Review: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Reviewed by Meagan

Published: 2006

It's about: Margaret Lea's life revolves around books. She works for her father in a humble bookstore near Cambridge and the few short hours she is not actually in the store arranging and studying the worn volumes she spends researching and composing biographies of long-dead minor historical figures in her small flat on the floor above. Despite living such a reclusive life, Margaret somehow catches the attention of Vida Winter and both women are changed forever by their meeting.

Vida Winter is a celebrated author whose novels have enamored millions of readers for several decades, but no story is so famous as that of 'the thirteenth tale'. Winter's first novel was a collection of retellings of classic fairy tales that were 'immediately familiar' yet 'brutal, sharp and heartbreaking'. Yet as strange as the tales were, the strangest aspect was that although the original title of the collection was Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, the book only has twelve stories. Despite being retitled in later printings as simply Tales of Change and Desperation, the mystery of the thirteenth tale has enthralled readers ever since.

Now it seems as though Vida has only one story left to tell: the story of her life. She makes the seemingly inexplicable choice of Margaret as biographer, and as her tale unfolds the mystery of who Vida Winter is and how she came by her stories only deepens.

I thought: I. Loved. This. Book. It has been constantly compared by reviewers as paying homage to Gothic novels such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Rebecca, and though I've read many books whose dust jackets make similar claims, this is one of the first I've read that I think actually lives up to such high praise. I can actually imagine this novel sitting comfortably on the shelf next to those books. The mystery is addicting, dark and cold with a hint of perversion that plays so well in those Gothic novels. I definitely spent a couple night shivering under the covers for far too long as I soaked in the atmosphere of this most intriguing story trying to unravel the threads and piece together the clues that are strewn amongst the pages. And the best part is that even when the mystery is solved, there are still threads that tickle readers with the desire for more answers and keeps them guessing long after the last page. The Thirteenth Tale novel is one labor of love that more than satisfies this bibliophile's need for a good book on a dark and stormy winter's night.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf or Rubbish Bin? I put this right on the shelf and optimistically left space next to it for Setterfield's second novel that's rumored to be close to publication.

Reading Recommendations: First of all, you have to read this book. And second of all, when (not if) you read it, take some time to savor the language. Setterfield really knows how to put together the perfect sentence, which grow into paragraphs, then pages. The entire novel is a treat but every page individually also houses literary treasures.

Warnings: There are some allusions (and nigh unto confirmations) of incest although nothing is overtly described. There are also references to blood and refuse that are kind of graphic in parts.

Favorite excerpts: In short: The whole book. But If I had to pick, here are a few of my favorites:

People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in the ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic.

There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.

Do they sense it, these dead writers, when their books are read? Does a pinprick of light appear in their darkness? Is their soul stirred by the feather touch of another mind reading theirs? I do hope so.

Once upon a time there was a fairy godmother, but the rest of the time there was none. This story is about one of those other times.

What I'm reading next: War on the Margins by Libby Cone