Desert Isle Keeper
The Thirteenth Tale
The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield’s debut novel, is without reservation the best book I have read all year. It’s complex, engrossing, improbable and yet appealing, especially to my fellow bibliophiles. Although it’s not overly long, it took me several weeks to read for I found it so intense that I would just read a couple of chapters a night, while it affected my thoughts all the next day.
In England, protagonist Margaret Lea is a reclusive woman who lives over her family’s antiquarian bookshop, and is content to spend a quiet existence surrounded by the written word and in her father’s peaceful company. She spends some of her time conducting biographical research on the ancient names she uncovers in her reading, and has even managed to have some work published. A recent article brought her name to the attention of the elderly Miss Vida Winter, an incredibly famous and prolific but secretive author who demands Margaret’s presence at her mansion so she can dictate her life story to Margaret.
Over the course of their arrangement, Margaret learns as much about herself as she does about the incredibly fantastic past of her new employer, a story that includes all the classic elements: love, betrayal, scandals, and secrets. Margaret also finds a way to take control of her own life, and to make decisions rather than just letting her life pass.
The story is told in first person, and Setterfield seamlessly switches from Margaret’s voice to the tale being narrated by Vida Winter. I had no trouble identifying with the bibliophile Margaret, and although our reading tastes differ, I somewhat envied her quiet life among books.
Although Vida Winter purportedly tells the true, unedited facts of her life, there are many mysterious details that Margaret must attempt to unravel on her own. Although, as in any good mystery, the author doesn’t hide any facts crucial to the reader’s solution of the puzzle, I still found myself surprised at every new development. The whole plot was so unpredictable, and I loved being taken by surprise by new twists.
Although not humorously written, the writing reminded me strongly of Fay Weldon’s. I would attribute this to a combination of the very British voice, the female point of view, Vida Winter’s forthright and unapologetic attitude, and finally, the quirky characters.
The Thirteenth Tale is being marketed as a mystery, but I think it has a much broader appeal. Although there are certainly mysterious elements to be uncovered, there is also a very Jane Eyre-like tone of gothic romance. Margaret’s journey of self-discovery is a whole subplot, and despite Setterfield’s incredible attention to detail, I found it impossible to discern the exact time period. Cars and cameras both exist, so it would logically be set in the present, but there is a pervasive feeling of timelessness about the whole book.
Part of the reason I was so caught up in the story is Setterfield’s descriptive language. I can still see marks in the gravel, grime on the dishes, fraying threads in the curtains, bright green eyes, and so on. In general I often find myself skimming over long descriptive passages in favor of dialogue or action, but it was so well integrated here I soaked up every word. I was thoroughly captivated.
I’m sure my fellow readers will enjoy, as I did, the allusions to other works of literature like Middlemarch, Sense and Sensibility, and Jane Eyre, not to mention Sherlock Holmes. Overall, The Thirteenth Tale is a book that I would recommend to any reader, with no reservations, for its extremely entertaining story, which is well supported by its originality and attention to detail. This is a booklover’s dream novel.