When Margaret Lea reads the letter from Vida Winter asking her to write her biography, she is puzzled. For one thing, she has only written one essay to date. Why would a famous and rich author want her when she could easily hire someone more experienced? Winter is also known to be extremely reclusive and secretive, so why is she willing to come out with the complete truth now? Drawn by curiosity, Margaret decides to let go of her distaste for modern books and decides to pick up one of Winter’s work. The first one she reads is Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, and she gets instantly captivated. There’s only one problem with the book: it’s missing the thirteenth tale, presumably the most important one. To solve this mystery, she agrees to visit Ms Winter and to hear her story. This is the premise of The Thirteenth Tale, a gothic tale of suspense, family secrets, and the nature of storytelling by Diane Setterfield.
The first thing that I noticed about this book was its impeccable language. The book is written beautifully with paragraphs that roll off the tongue. Its descriptions are intoxicating and so precise that Angelfield House and the other settings materialized before my eyes. The characters are just as real in all their complexities, even the minor ones like Margaret Lea’s parents and Dr Maudsley’s wife. The dialogue, on the other hand, puts you in the centre of the conversations with distinctive voices that are as clear as day.
While it is mainly from the perspective of Margaret Lea, she mimics the voices of those telling her their story. As a result, reading this novel feels like hearing multiple voices. Margaret (or Setterfield, rather) successfully hides behind the voices of others, only to reemerge later on when needed. Through this, we get to the very heart of the novel. We learn about the power of storytelling; we learn how lies can convey truths; we learn how the malleability of fiction can sometimes be the only way to successfully mirror the complexities of real life. Life does not have a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end, with just one voice speaking. Instead, it is an endless stream of stories with multiple voices speaking all at once.
Saying that a book “grips you from start to finish” is a cliché, but here it is far too appropriate a description. By beginning with Vida Winter’s letter asking Margaret Lea to write her biography, I immediately asked, “Who is this author? Why is she hiring an antiquarian bookshop owner to tell her life’s story?” Then we are taken through the incredible history of Angelfield House, the ruin where the writer grew up. We encounter the weird children Charlie and Isabelle, whose sadomasochistic bond is allowed to flourish amid the squalor and neglect. Weirder still are Isabelle’s offsprings, the wild red-haired twins, Adeline and Emmeline, who run amok and communicate in a twin language all of their own. As the story progressed from there, I was filled with more questions. “What happened on the night of the fire? How does Aurelius, the friendly giant, fit into all of this?” Were the answers satisfying in the end? you might ask.
Not all of them. The most important one about Vida Winter’s identity was a twist that I did not see coming. It’s the kind of twist that will get you frantically flipping to previous chapters to see how cleverly it was hidden through subtle shifts of point-of-view. The scenes that explain the fire had my heart racing as well. There’s also the grisly murders delivered in delicious gothic fashion; the odd inflictions of pain between siblings; the subtle hints of incest that nevertheless made me blush.
However, others were left to be explained with eyebrow-raising coincidences and the plain and simple “because it just is.” They’re like speed bumps on the immersive road of the novel that causes you to slow down in your reading and to remind you that this is a work of fiction as opposed to a fully-realized world that you can enter through the pages.
Furthermore, the novel gets bloated near the end. A diary of a certain character gets discovered and considerable chunks of the chapters detailing this diary simply retell what we already know. I raced through these portions not out of suspense but because I just wanted to the get to the point of it.
However, once the story comes to a close, its flaws hardly matter. What matters is that it is an engrossing novel with unforgettable characters and a plot that sometimes dips but mostly soars. On top of that, it also demonstrates how powerful storytelling can be in the hands of a capable author. And in The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield not only proves that she is capable; she shines.