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The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield — secrets and lies

Fog shrouds the moors in Diane Setterfields's The Thirteenth Tale
Cover of The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield an engrossing novel of secrets and lies with Gothic overtones

The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield’s debut novel, is perfect for a game of “spot the Gothic trope” 

A ruined house full of attics and hiding spaces. Secrets within secrets. Insanity and hints of incest. Twins who communicate via a private language.  Mysterious disappearances and appearances. Fog-shrouded moors and snow-induced powercuts. 

The Thirteenth Tale is however, far more than the sum of all these parts. Setterfield pays homage to the classic Gothic novel — especially to Jane Eyre which  plays a key role in the text — yet she skilfully reimagines it to offer a riveting multi-layered mystery tale. 

The novel begins on the day Margaret Lea, an antiquarian bookseller in Cambridge, receives an unexpected letter from “England’s best-loved writer”, the reclusive and enigmatic Vida Winter. Vida has spent six decades creating various life histories for herself — many of them outlandish and all of them inventions. Every journalist sent to interview her comes away with a different account of her parentage and early years.

Now in ailing health, she decides it is time to commission a biography, something she has always previously resisted. She asks Margaret Lea to undertake the project. It’s a strange choice for Margaret has written only one biography to date (even that was more of a pamphlet than a book). She also never read any of Winter’s novels.

But Vida’s letter offers an irresistible story. “Once upon a time,” she tells Margaret, “there was a haunted house… a library… Once upon a time there were twins.”

That mention of twins is enough to persuade Margaret to leave her post at her father’s rare books store and undertake the commission. She makes just one demand upon Vida Winter: “tell me the truth.”

At the writer’s isolated Yorkshire mansion, Margaret hears Vida’s story. It’s darker and more complex than she could ever have imagined, transporting her to the tangled lives of the March family and their now-ruined home at Angelfield House. It’s a story of Isabelle, a beautiful but wilful daughter touched with madness, and her sadistic brother George; the wild, untamed twins Adeline and Emmeline and a baby abandoned on the doorstep.

The multiple layers of The Thirteenth Tale are revealed like dolls in a Matryoshka set. Every day Margaret spends with Vida Winter brings new revelations but only Margaret can decide what is true and what is yet another artificial construct in the life of this mysterious writer.

The Thirteenth Tale is an engrossing, atmospheric read that hinges on a series of mysteries only some of which are resolved. It’s so well constructed that I wasn’t surprised to learn that Diane Setterfield had a battle to keep all the plot lines of this tangled family saga in order.

As if the many twists and turns in this novel were not enough to hold the attention, there’s the added delight in discovering that this is a novel about books, the art of storytelling and the joy of reading. In fact when the book was published in 2006 it was described as “a love letter to reading.”

I warmed to Margaret Lea the instant I discovered that her idea of a perfect evening is one where the shop has closed, she’s finished her evening meal and at last can retreat to bed with a book.

The hours between eight in the evening and one or two in the morning have always been my magic hours. Against the blue candlewick bedspread the white pages of my open book, illuminated by a circle of lamplight, were the gateway to another world.”

She’s grown up surrounded by books. She knows every shelf in the bookshop she runs with her father; and has touched every volume on those shelves. Her first love is the nineteenth century novel. Her favourite novel, one she re-reads regularly, is Jane Eyre.

The reason is simple: I prefer proper endings. Marriages and deaths, noble sacrifices and miraculous restorations, tragic separations and unhoped-for reunions, great falls and dreams fulfilled; these, in my view, constitute an ending worth the wait. They should come after adventures, perils, dangers and dilemmas, and wind everything up nice and neatly. Endings like this are to be found more commonly in old novels than new ones, so I read old novels

So many times when Margaret talks about her experience of reading, I found myself nodding in agreement. This comment in particular chimed with me:

Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes— characters even— caught in the fibres of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you?

If you love books about books and authors. If you’re a sucker for a story that grabs you and will not let you go. If you love a touch of the Gothic, The Thirteenth Tale is for you.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield: Footnotes

After a childhood in a Berkshire village,  Diane Setterfield studied French Literature at the University of Bristol and went on to teach in France. She left academia in the late 1990s to pursue a career as a writer.  Diane now lives in Oxford. When not writing she reads widely, and when not actually reading she is usually talking or thinking about reading.

Diane Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale  was published by Orion in 2006. It’s since sold more than three million copies. A television adaptation starring Vanessa Redgrave and Olivia Colman, was filmed in North Yorkshire and broadcast by BBC2 in 2013.

Her most recent novel, Once Upon a River, is reviewed here on the blog.

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