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The Thirteenth Tale – Diane Setterfield – 9/10

“There can be no secrets in a house where there are children”

Margaret Lea, child of an antiquarian bookseller and amateur (although published) biographer herself, is personally requested by Miss Vida Winter, bestselling doyenne of English novels, to write her biography. Margaret journeys to Yorkshire to gather Vida’s fantastic tale.

This extraordinary novel clearly pays homage to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and relies to a certain extent for its effect on the reader’s knowledge of those northern epics.

I was a little disappointed by the melodramatic way in which the mysteries were resolved – and yet those clues had been there all along, and I felt the ending was fitting, all things having run their course. Similarly, I found Margaret’s suffering to be more than a little self-indulgent, but then I have never been in that situation. It is clever of Setterfield to have the biographer suffer in the same way as the subject, but the revelation at the end was a bit much.

Setterfield has a real talent for moulding characters – Margaret, Vida and the Angelfield cast are all vivid and varied. The characters are strongly individual – Margaret is shy, withdrawn and bibliophilic (although, of course, there is considerable character development during the course of the novel); Vida is a recluse, yet as thorny as Margaret points out her initials are. I would love to read more of Setterfield’s work simply for the characters.

The themes are very easy to identify and I wonder if this novel will come to be studied in schools. Twin-ness is the thread on which everything hangs – unusual, judging by my limited range of reading. Dysfunctional and unhappy families, particularly mothers with limited capacity, also make several appearances, as does the dichotomy between truth and a good story:

“What succour, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story?”

“A good story is always more dazzling than a broken piece of truth”

Generally I was impressed by the device of an independent biographer (primary narrator) telling the story of an unreliable secondary narrator, and would be interested in reading more of this style. It reminded me somewhat of Moon Tiger – an old woman telling the story of her life. As with her melodramatic melancholy, I found Margaret’s indulgence of ghosts unnecessary and overdone.

However, my criticisms are very specific and I would not hesitate to recommend this book emphatically.

A note on the bindings – I do love the paperback/dust jacket amalgamation, where the paperback has two internal flaps, the way a dust jacket on a hardback does, complete with blurb on inner front and author info on inner back. The Shadow of What We Were had the same publishing style. However – the deliberately uneven page edges (as if it had been published back when pages had to be cut by hand) really really really annoys me!!!!!! (apologies for adjectival and punctuation repetition) I tend to turn pages by picking up the side of the page with the fingerpad of my index finger (try it and you’ll see what I mean), but these page edging prevent that for half the pages (the ones with wider pages behind them) and the other pages are so soft that you damage the pages trying to turn them like that!

Some of my favourite quotes:

“For me, to see is to read.”

“Yorkshire was a county I knew only from novels, and novels from another century at that.”

“The doctor knew his wife was beautiful, but they had been married too long for it to make any difference to him.”

(I hope this never happens to me or anyone I know!)

“My mother and I were like two continents moving slowly but inexorably apart; my father, the bridge builder, constantly extending the fragile edifice he had constructed to connect us.”

“Returning to myself, I found that my thoughts had been rearranged in my absence. Two items in particular had been selected out of the unheeded detritus that is my memory and placed for my attention.”

And I’m sure this story will resonate with many a reader:

“I never read without making sure I am in a secure position. I have been like this ever since the age of seven when, sitting on a high wall and reading The Water Babies, I was so seduced by the descriptions of underwater life that I unconsciously relaxed my muscles. Instead of being held buoyant by the water that so vividly surrounded me in my mind, I plummeted to the ground and knocked myself out. I can still feel the scar under my fringe now. Reading can be dangerous.”

Go out. Buy it.


6 thoughts on “The Thirteenth Tale – Diane Setterfield – 9/10”

  1. I like the sound of this – it’s going on my TBR list. Have you read The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry? I’ve just finished it and really enjoyed it. It too has an unreliable narrator, in this case a patient in a mental hospital. She is writing her life story, and her version contrasts with the ‘official’ version in hospital records.

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