The Thirteenth Tale
by Diane Setterfield
Genres: Fiction / Literary / Mystery
“I was spellbound. There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner, wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk. And when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”
Margaret Lea leads a quiet, uncomplicated life, assisting her father in his bookshop, reading whenever she can, and occasionally dabbling in obscure biographical writing. When she unexpectedly receives a letter from Vida Winter, a reclusive bestselling author, requesting Margaret to write her autobiography, she is curiously compelled to accept the invitation. Soon after arriving at Ms Winter’s residence and meeting the aging and sickly writer, Margaret is quickly entranced by her story as slowly the details of her mysterious past are revealed. And what does all this have to do with Ms Winter’s never-published, but infamous, Thirteenth Tale?…….
This is a book about books. What could be better than reading about reading? Books are a key and recurring feature, sometimes subtly in the background, sometimes directly in the foreground. Vida Winter is one of the world’s most popular novelists of the day. Margaret Lea has grown up surrounded by books in her father’s bookshop, and consuming them in every spare moment. The library in Angelfield House pops up again and again when the story takes us to that location. And scattered throughout are references to books- being read by the characters, mentioned in conversation, simply appearing in the story. Books hold a special place for many of the characters- they are an escape, a creative outlet, a means of living, a measure of one’s knowledge and personality.
This is also a book about families, and how the people around you make you who you are. There are many interconnections between characters, which are revealed one by one as you read on, and they leave their permanent scars on each other as the story unfolds. There are secrets, and lies, and mysteries. And every character in this book seems to carry weight, even the ones intended to be minor characters. Every one has their own story.
The language was beautifully descriptive, at times the author lingering on singular moments or features – a thought, the setting of a room, a particular object…..but I never felt bored, or that the story was moving too slowly. On a few occasions, my breath was taken away by the writing, particular in the passages I’ve featured here.
“The letter was moderate, small enough for economy of ink and paper, and large enough for clarity. There were no embellishments, no elaborate curls, flounces or flourishes. The beauty of the orthography came from the sense of order, balance and proportion that governed each and every letter. It was a good, clean hand. It was Hester herself, made word.”
I listened to The Thirteenth Tale on audiobook, read by Jenny Agutter. Jenny’s spotless enunciation combined with her charming British accent, and ability to tweak her voice slightly to reflect the introduction of each new character, made for a smooth and relaxing listen. Her style suits the tone and language of the book perfectly – well done to whoever chose Jenny to read this story aloud! I honestly don’t know if I would have enjoyed the book as much if I had just read the print version. Unfortunately I did have to read part of it in print – the audiobook version I had was a cd copy from the library, which of course was scratched and would jump from time to time, and OF COURSE the worst damage was over the last 6 or 7 tracks on the last cd. So I completely missed the ending and had to then borrow a print copy just to read the ending!
Read this if you like books about books, if you like stories with many well-defined characters who you will bond with, or if you like mysterious stories with plenty of links between characters and places and events that you will enjoy figuring out as you go along. Listen to it on audiobook if you like posh British accents, and listen to it if it’s cold and rainy outside – just because it seems to fit the tone.
Did not like it – It was ok – Liked it – Really liked it – It was amazing