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The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

by on February 27, 2012

I’ll always remember The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield as a book I devoted an entire Sunday to. I had originally checked this book out from the library for myself to read but ended up giving it to my sister instead. She read it and immediately told me I just had to read the book so she could discuss it with me. Luckily, I checked the book out for that very reason so I did.

Although reading this book led to a very lengthy discussion afterwards, I can’t say it was an excellent read. It was a good book and an intriguing mystery with a very gothic feel to it, not unlike Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, a book that was mentioned quite a few times throughout this novel. If you are a lover of books then I think you would find a lot to relate to. I understood Margaret Lea’s passion for books and her joy of having touched every book in her father’s antique book store and felt the pleasure of the physical, solid, weighty presence of a book in the hand.

As the story goes, Margaret is somewhat of a biographer and is requested unexpectedly to write the biography of the most famous writer in England, a woman by the name of Vida Winter who wishes to tell the real story of her life before she dies. The request comes out of nowhere as Margaret wasn’t aware that Vida Winter knew that she existed. Miss Winter is infamous for lying in interviews when it comes to her personal life and instead of giving true information she tells stories instead. Piqued by the aura of mystery that surrounds the reclusive author, Margaret agrees to hear the truth and write her life story.

Miss Winter and Margaret share a secret — they are both twins. The story that Miss Winter tells is mostly about herself and Emmeline growing up at the Angelfield Estate. All in all, the subject of  twins is very much like clowns in that these innocent beings can become downright creepy under the right light and in the right circumstances. Diane Setterfield succeeds in creating a very creepy atmosphere surrounding the Angelfield twins and the reader doesn’t really know what the big mystery is going to be until the very end when at last it is revealed and it’s one of those endings where you have to re-evaluate everything you’ve just read.

Exhibit A: Cute Twins

Exhibit B: Creepy Twins

See the difference?

This is a strange book in that no dates are given. We know that there are telephones and taxis but no cell phones or computers. Correspondence is all done by post. I believe the general consensus is that the story takes place in the 50s or the 60s. For me, it was an unwelcome distraction in the back of my mind while reading trying to figure out when this story takes place. 

While the conclusion of the story still plagues my sister who goes back and forth between the different ways to perceive the ending, I am content to believe what I think the author wants us to believe. My sister, however, feels that little niggle of doubt that she can’t quite escape and she simply wishes the author would just tell us what is right rather than having us decide for ourself. Any book that can baffle my sister is cause for applause and The Thirteenth Tale itself is worth a read I think, maybe even a re-read. I found, however, that a lot of things could have been cut out while still preserving the spirit of the book so I won’t be picking it up again but I would still recommend it if you’re looking for a good modern gothic tale.


N.B.: I read this book as part of the Smooth Criminals Reading Challenge and this is my entry for the category of “Gothic Novel”. I decided to go for something modern as I’m not much for reading early classics.. I think I’ll leave that up to Oli who did a review of the first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, a few months ago.

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