The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Recently, as in Last Week Recently, I read an appallingly bad novel. I won’t mention any names, since I really enjoy this author’s other books, and I want to bitch without wounding anyone.
The novel was lengthy, tedious, and repetitive. It had wooden, stilted characters, and about five boring sex scenes that made me cringe and flip through them going:
“My GOD. Slow, romantic, feathery-strokey, touchy-feely sex makes my SKIN CRAWL! I CANNOT read this without wanting to throw up! Ew! Ew! Ew! If I have to read one more word about slow, gentle sex where everyone’s in love I’m gonna’ freak out! How disgusting!!”

And so on.

So there was that.

In the end, the heroine had only slept with, like, two people, and that was disgusting to me as well. Come ON.

After finishing it, I thought: “Well, it was this author’s FIRST novel. So maybe that’s why it sucked.” Then I sat and thought about all the first novels I’ve read that were excellent and I decided that was no excuse.

The Thirteenth Tale for instance.

Diane Setterfield’s first novel was rather wonderful.

The story starts in London. The main character, Margaret Lea, a largely unknown biographer, receives a letter from a very old and very mysterious famous author. The author, Vidal Winter, has never told any journalist the truth about her past. Her life story indicates she emerged from nowhere and started writing fabulous books. Very reclusive, very evasive about giving interviews, the author has decided that now, at the end of her life, she wants to tell someone the truth – and she chooses Margaret Lea.

(The title of the novel comes from a book that Vida Winter has written. It’s called The Thirteenth Tale, but only contains twelve stories – so of course the public is fascinated. Where IS the Thirteenth story?)

Margaret has a few secrets of her own. Namely, her secret knowledge about a twin who died at birth – which makes her relationship with her mother strained. So when Vida tells her that the truth about her own past has to do with twins, Margaret is intrigued.

Setterfield sets up the novel in gothic horror fashion. It is dark and scary and on every page you have this expectation that you are going to read something really gross or really inappropriate.

Basically, long ago, there was a big house named Angelfield filled with members of an extremely dysfunctional family. The daughter is conniving, the brother is a head-case, the twins are disturbed, and there is weird stuff like incest and rape and violence happening every other second.

It’s great.

As Vida tells her story, you get sucked into the mysteries of the house, and the twists and turns of the writing brings you into the story of Charlie and Isabella – their odd and incestuous relationship – the birth of the twins – the death of Isabella and then Charlie – and the eventual appearance of a ghost that haunts the crumbling mansion. But is it a ghost? Or is it an illusion?

Using her experience as a biographer, Margaret sets out to fact check what Vida is telling her and meets Aurelius, who spends his time exploring the ruins of Angelfield, and is intent on discovering the secrets of his orphaned past.

So basically everyone is an orphan, a twin, and looking for the truth.

The story – which IS (spoiler) the Thirteenth Tale – pulls you this way and that and addresses issues of loss, of duality, of transformation, of the loneliness of being without roots or without family – even with roots and with a family. Of being haunted by things that happened before you were born.

I think that that last bit is why I find the book so riveting. Setterfield does an amazing job of telling us – with sensitivity – that the ghosts of all the things that happen to those around us – follow us – and unless we own up to them – and confront them – we remain haunted. We remain separated from a richer, better, and more fulfilling life. We ARE the tales we live and tell – and we exorcise our demons by telling them.

So much of what I read and enjoy is themed around this that I feel like it holds tremendous significance for me. Is it that I feel haunted by the things that led to my existence? The insignificance of my existence? Is that I feel my life is bare and empty much of the time? Is it all the stories I never tell? Or the stories I tell, but never finish – and if we are being honest – are never really listened to?

Some combination of the above I’m sure. But irrespective of all that blather – this first novel of Diane Setterfield’s is very good – unlike the first novels of some – and I have read it more than once.


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