The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

TheThirteenthTale.jpgA month or so ago you may recall that I mentioned a contest surrounding the soon to be released The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. There was a bit of a kerfluffle surrounding the marketing of said contest and book (see here, here, and here). Given all of the hype and discussion, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to actually read the book.

What I found was an enjoyable Gothic suspense novel. As is so often the case, the expectations you bring will determine your reaction to a great degree. Those looking for entertainment and lively writing will enjoy The Thirteenth Tale. Those seeking something deeper might be disappointed.

As befitting a mystery of this sort, the plot is somewhat complex. As is my want, allow me to use someone else’s summary:

When young Margaret Lea, a used-bookseller’s daughter who has grown up enamored with the dank smell of old paper, receives a letter from famous author Vida Winter, she’s startled by the reclusive writer’s request that Margaret pen her long-sought-after biography. Miss Winter confesses in her letter that a reporter once implored her with a simple but laden request: “Tell me the truth.” Miss Winter instead invented yet another famous Vida Winter tale, but in her letter to Margaret, she claims that she’s ready to face the truth of what her fascinating life has been.

“It is time,” Miss Winter writes, and when Margaret accepts the commission, first-time novelist Setterfield leads us on a Gothic tale that sometimes embraces and sometimes evades this slippery notion of “truth”: As the ailing Miss Winter recites her story of hidden and somewhat feral twins, ghosts and a murderous fire, Margaret herself must face the painful secret of her own birth and, as she terms it, “death day.”

As is evidenced by the reviews, there seems to be two camps: those who loved it and those who, while recognizing its merits, were somewhat disappointed. Those who loved it, really loved it:

THE THIRTEENTH TALE is a gripping and spellbinding novel with a haunting quality. The story within the story extends beyond mesmerizing in a way that will transfix every reader. Diane Setterfield has a gift of making each beautifully constructed sentence draw her reader deeper into her tale. Hairs will prick the napes of necks when she introduces the girl in the mist, and goosebumps will rise on arms when Margaret meets Aurelius Love. Throughout the story, the three-dimensional sense of emotion literally pulses with Margaret’s despair, her elation and her loss.

Read this book for its dazzling turn of a phrase, its wonderful twist on the classic ghost story and the author’s stunning ability to move her audience.

The book fans are pretty clear on why they enjoyed it:

Setterfield gives us a fairy tale complete with a giant and abandoned babies, a Gothic suspense novel with a creepy family estate and crazy relatives, and a ghost story with disappearing books and a girl in the mist. But more than that, Setterfield has provided a rarity: a beautifully written novel with a swift plot, atmospheric setting and witty dialogue that combine to provide a read that will leave any book lover well satisfied.

I think the key to the above is “a beautifully written novel with a swift plot” and “atmospheric setting.” These are the aspects that make the book enjoyable. Setterfield clearly has a way with language and does a great job of infusing the book with Gothic atmosphere and with a bibliophile’s sensibility. That she accomplishes this while keeping the plot and mystery going, make the book entertaining in a way that a more literary work might not be.

In reading many of the reviews, it struck me that Margaux Wexberg Sanchez, writing in the Washington Post, captured this interesting aspect the best:

If you are a Reader with a capital R, as is the narrator of Diane Setterfield’s debut novel, the pages of “The Thirteenth Tale” will remind you of what you know and love: the world of books. What you are less likely to recall, however, is the world outside them, the world we inhabit when we set our books aside. Setterfield’s erudite novel amounts to a sort of brainteaser, a literary riddle to occupy the mind rather than a new vision to inform it.

The novel’s references are to Bronte and Dickens, but in many ways “The Thirteenth Tale” has more in common with the work of Brown — Dan Brown. Short chapters that leave us dangling off cliffs; historic locales protecting secrets in the walls (or attics, libraries and gardens); a bookish protagonist with a knack for cracking codes; a roster of eccentric players appearing and disappearing as the plot requires — these are the devices that buoy “The Da Vinci Code,” and they serve again to carry us through Setterfield’s Gothic mystery.

[. . .]

Setterfield, a former professor of 20th-century French literature, is a deft stylist and talented technician. Both her love for literature and the depth of her learning enliven her debut novel. “The Thirteenth Tale” keeps us reading for its nimble cadences and atmospheric locales, as well as for its puzzles, the pieces of which, for the most part, fall into place just as we discover where the holes are. And yet, for all its successes — and perhaps because of them — on the whole the book feels unadventurous, content to rehash literary formulas rather than reimagine them.

I think the two key phrases are “a literary riddle to occupy the mind rather than a new vision to inform it” and “content to rehash literary formulas rather than reimagine them.” As I noted above, those seeking entertainment and “a good read” will, I think, enjoy The Thirteenth Tale. Setterfield has a way of sucking you into the story and keeping you guessing. For me, it was the kind of book that you enjoy diving into for long stretches of time; to enjoy not just the unraveling of the plot but the author’s skill in telling the tale.

I am not sufficiently familiar with Austen, Bronte, or Du Maurier to note the references or to compare the styles, but I don’t think you need that background to appreciate the book. In fact, maybe being familiar with these works undermines one’s appreciation for Setterfield’s story (this blogger’s expectations certainly were not met).

Having enjoyed reading it, however, doesn’t mean I don’t understand the criticisms. There are points where the plot has holes and the story is a little thin. I thought the revealed “Thirteenth Tale” was anti-climatic and the final resolution a little too neat. As Sanchez noted, there is no “new vision” or re-imagining of literary formulas here. As a result there is a certain letdown when you finish the book because the enjoyment comes from being caught up in the moment – from enjoying the feeling of being engrossed in a story – not from a lasting philosophical or aesthetic insight.

But if you can put those expectations and thoughts aside and just live in the story, so to speak, I think you will be glad you did. The Thirteenth Tale is an engrossing and entertaining story and a particularly impressive debut novel. And given its success, it appears that its author will have to continue to deal with burden of high expectations.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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