The Thirteenth Tale



The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

"There are too many books in the world to read in a single lifetime; you have to draw the line somewhere."

Careful now friends. Reading can be dangerous. Setterfield's tale begins with this warning, to show we cannot always control ourselves once we are in the hands of a master writer - for they will move us quite against our will. That is, of course, a reader's greatest joy, and Setterfield is very obviously a joyous reader. I think that might be something that makes for the best writers: those that are made joyful by reading.

"I was spellbound. There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner."

Exactly. And so we are swept away in Setterfield's deft story, a gothic tale worthy of the Bronte sisters. If ever there was a book meant to be read on a dark and stormy night, it was this one. This book has everything: ghosts, mysterious fires, reclusive wealthy people, incest, insane asylums, twins' secrets and secret twins. Margaret Lea, a young reclusive memoirist, is asked to write the biography of the most famous authors of all time, Vida Winters, herself a recluse as well. Curiousity drags Margaret out of her introverted shell and she travels to Winters' chilly, and chilling, estate, to hear the promised last tale in a book of thirteen tales in which only twelve were ever published. The world is thirsting for that last tale, while Vida Winters prepares to make her last confession.


I had trouble pinning down when it was set. Setterfield seems to go out of her way to avoid putting in any hints. It is so obviously not set at a specific time that I started to do some sleuthing - it was first published in 2006. There is nothing spoken about internet or computers - or uber - but there are cars. At one point she refers to a long-ago war, but really, that could mean anything. As such, the book seems to be suspended outside of modern reality, and I get the sense this is purposefully done. Margaret makes a point of never reading modern books but only classics written more than a century ago, so this sense of being trapped in time could in fact be her perspective of life.


As with any good gothic tale, I spent a great deal of the story feeling uneasy, with a sort of dread creeping along through the narrative. In part this is because both of the narrators (Margaret in 'real time' and Vida in the story within a story) may or may not be mad. Neither are untrustworthy, but both at times seem to have a warped sense of reality. It made the reading interesting and at times made me as the reader a little bit jittery.


At the mid-way point in the book, I couldn't help but think narrator Margaret Lea was in serious need of therapy. Her obsession with her sister was certainly unhealthy, all the more so as she keeps her anguish hidden. Happily, there is a handsome doctor hanging about who takes an interest in her. After she collapses from spending a night out in the moors, he looks in on her. I initially did not love his diagnosis of her, that basically she reads Wuthering Heights too much and was too romantic. This is way too akin to the Victorian diagnosis of "hysteria" in a woman. However, his prescription was funny and appreciated: one dose of Arthur Conan Doyle a night. Margaret eagerly dives into Sherlock Holmes in her down time.


Throughout the book, the characters return to the theme of eventual death and grief, but in a way it comes down to how death and grief connect us, as it is a shared human emotion.

"We all have our sorrows, and although the exact delineaments, the weight and the dimensions of grief are different for everyone, the colour of grief is common to us all. 'I know,' he said, because he was human, and therefore, in a way, he did."

All is not so despondent, though, as this is actually a complete bonkers drama about a very troubled family. And also how important family is, no matter how strange yours is, because belonging to a family is one of the most important needs we have as humans. This need can plummet to disturbed depths, as in the incestuous relationship between brother and sister, the twins who grew up without even understanding that other humans were actually real, and the obsession Margaret has with her own twin. However, it is the bonds we make with friends and family that bring us out of those depths. One minor character ends up being the most affected by Vida Winters' confessional, and in it finds completeness and peace sought after a whole life through. On the whole the novel ends on a hopeful note, my favourite place to part with a book.


This book is not for everyone. But I recommend it with all my heart if you love Jane Eyre or similar gothic novels. Above all, The Thirteenth Tale is a book for readers, if that makes any sense. If you exclaim over a beautifully turned phrase, this is probably the book for you. Recommended to be read in the autumn, in front of a fire with a hot cup of sweet tea next to you.