Sunday, June 23, 2013

Book Review: "The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel" by Diane Setterfield

Life is compost. ... The writer's life needs time to rot away before it can be used to nourish a work of fiction. It must be allowed to decay." Vida Winter in The Thirteenth Tale
This is a book* for writers and readers and anyone else who reveres the power of Story.  It is a beautifully written modern Gothic novel. (I love British prose.)

The narrator, Margaret, works in her father's bookshop and pursues a side-line as an amateur biographer.  One day, she receives a letter from an author who is one of the UK's most beloved 20th Century novelists, inviting her to visit for the purpose of discussing the possibility of an engagement to write a biography of the author.  Margaret prides herself in reading only "classics."  She has never read any of Vida Winter's novels. In anticipation of her meeting with the author, she reads everything she can find by and about the novelist.  She is surprised to discover that she loves the novels and she is shocked to discover that Winter has offered up a completely different version of her biography in every interview she's ever given. Her public "biographies" are as fictional as her novels.

Margaret is not sure she wants to write the woman's biography because she is afraid she can't trust her, but Margaret accepts the invitation to find out more about this mysterious woman. She travels to the author's home which is in a remote and desolate part of Yorkshire. Thus begins a journey of discovery into the secrets (and lies) that have cursed and all but destroyed a prominent family, and scarred many in the village as well.

The story has all the classic features of Gothic novels: the haunted mansion filled with secrets, the faithful and devoted servants (whose loyalties vary), the strange and even insane nobility, the village doctor (whose character and role in the story was a cool twist), and the Outsider who deciphers the Mystery. It somehow manages to avoid being formulaic, because Setterfield uses those elements in new and different ways. The story progresses logically, and gradually peels back the layers to reveal the Truth -- which surprised me.  (I love it when that happens.)

This is one of those novels that you should save up for a rainy weekend when you have lots of tea and plenty of time to stretch out on the couch, while the wind and rain pound against the windows. Even better, read it in under the covers on a dark and stormy night.  (I have always wanted to use that phrase!!)

Buy it here*.

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