A lonely heroine, a mysterious volume of fairy tales, cold English moors, a rich and reclusive hostess, sordid tales of a family’s disintegration and ghosts-each of these elements would be welcome and expected in any number of Gothic and Romantic novels from the 18th and 19th centuries, but seem somewhat unusual in a contemporary novel.
Though it may seem strange, this is exactly what one should expect before reading Diane Setterfield’s debut novel “The Thirteenth Tale.” Setterfield, a former literary academic from Yorkshire, had her novel published by Washington Square Press in 2006.
It then earned the honor of being a New York Times #1 Bestseller. It runs a little over 400 pages, but each page seems meaningful and significant to the buildup of the mystery and suspense of the novel.
“The Thirteenth Tale” is primarily about two women who unknowingly share many painful experiences. The first, who narrates the novel, is Margaret Lea, a quiet, bookish woman who suffers under the weight of secrets and cleaves to her books for sanctuary. The second is a famous and prolific author, the enigmatic Vida Winter.
Their paths cross when Miss Winter asks Margaret to come to her home and write her much-anticipated biography. As Miss Winter tells her life story, she engages the reader in the gripping tale of her family’s less-than-savory past.
As Margaret uncovers the mystery of Miss Winter’s true past, bits of her own life become clearer to her. As both women dwell on their pasts, their lives and destinies become entwined with one another’s.
Diane Setterfield employs vivid language and often uncomfortably-detailed imagery. She constructs Margaret’s and Miss Winter’s lives using two interrelated approaches.
One aspect of this novel that stands out more than others is the language Setterfield uses in describing books. Books are an integral part of the novel, and Setterfield describes them and the love of them with adoring language.
Setterfield goes into lengthy detail about Margaret’s love of the written word multiple times throughout the novel. The way Margaret describes her books and her devotion to reading would certainly resonate with any fellow bibliophile.
To construct Vida Winter’s life, Diane Setterfield uses a model that is directly linked to Margaret’s love of books. She tells the tale of Miss Winter’s family using the backdrop of a Gothic or Romantic novel.
She places the novel in the moors of England, where novels such as “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre” were set. Miss Winter, along with her family members, play parts that should be familiar to those who have read these other novels.
There’s the tragic heroine, people who have gone mad, meddling house servants and pining male lovers. The plot stays true to its predecessors, employing sordid gossip and elements of the supernatural.
Setterfield brilliantly and seamlessly recreates the familiar model of the Gothic/Romantic novel while referencing these novels through Margaret’s love of literature.
While “The Thirteenth Tale” sets up a marvelous mystery for the audience to unravel, it can be a bit complicated at times. It may be necessary, while reading the novel, to continually look back to past chapters and remember some small detail that before seemed insignificant.
Some who may not have a love of literature, and particularly of Gothic/Romantic literature, and those who don’t enjoy mystery may not enjoy this novel as much as others. Furthermore, there are some racy elements to this novel, so it could possibly offend some readers.
In short, this novel may not be for everyone. However, Diane Setterfield is a wonderful writer, and “The Thirteenth Tale” is an exciting and turn-paging work that many would enjoy.