The Thirteenth Tale #BookReview

These past weeks, I had read and given up on a bunch of books. All good books, ones I had set aside on my TBR with great anticipation. However, the time was just not right, it would seem.

And then, I picked up The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.

It was a gift from fellow book lover Shalini. Do check out her gorgeous Bookstagram account. I began reading it with the thought of letting it go if it didn’t work.

I needn’t have worried. 20 per cent in, The Thirteenth Tale took over my minds-pace. By the time I reached mid-point, I was totally completely sucked into the narrative and I read the second half through all of Saturday in a single stretch. Boy! Was I glad it was the weekend!

Here’s What it’s About

Margaret Lea is a small-time biographer of obscure, mostly dead, writers. Her essays are published in equally obscure anthologies. She runs a bookstore, along with her father, that houses antique and rare books.

One day she receives a letter from the most famous author of all time – Vida Winter, with the offer of writing her biography. There are two problems here – One, Margaret hasn’t read any of Vida Winter’s books and two, the author is famous for giving out different stories to every journalist who has ever asked her about her background; all false ones.

Margaret begins to read one of Winter’s books and stays up all night. She is utterly taken in. That’s how she finds herself making her way to Winter’s secluded home on the moors.

She accepts the offer and agrees to stay on in the house and write the biography on the condition that Winter tells her the complete truth. On the other hand, Winter puts forth the condition that Margaret will ask no questions and won’t ask to jump through the narrative.

Vida Winter then goes back two generations and begins to spin a dark and captivating tale.

What’s more, Winter’s story has a connection, tenuous though it might be, with Margaret’s life too.

That’s as much as I’m going to tell you about the book.

What I Loved

At the risk of repeating myself let me say this — The Thirteenth Tale is a bewitching book. Here’s why:

The ‘Gothicness’ of the Setting

Gothic fiction is often considered a synonym for horror. That was one reason I was dubious about the book, horror not being a genre I’m fond of. However, The Thirteenth Tale isn’t a horror story. It is definitely dark but I’d call it a Gothic mystery. The strength of the genre lies in the way it sucks you into a whole different world.

It has a definite Jane Eyre/Wuthering Heights kind of feel to it. In fact Jane Eyer features significantly in the narrative.

Most of the book is set in a massive house situated far out on the moors (Reminded me of the Bronte sisters). The weather forms a perfect backdrop. During much of the story, it is either oppressively cloudy or raining heavily. I am tempted to give the book one more read to see if the weather ties in with the ups and downs of the narrative.

As a teen I loved novels by Victoria Holt which were gothic mysteries with dashes of romance. I am glad I rediscovered the genre.

The Writing

I loved the author’s voice. Her writing is entrancing. I found myself constantly highlighting lines and thoughts on my kindle; it is beautiful, insightful writing. 

There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner.

The Thirteenth Tale

Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes–characters even–caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you.

The Thirteenth Tale

The Plot and the Ending

…. were both well crafted. It’s not often one finds a book with excellent writing that also has an engrossing plot and a worthy ending. The Thirteenth Tale has it all. 

The book isn’t fast-paced but it keeps you hooked. One follows Winter’s past, her present and also Margaret’s personal life story. The three narratives deeply mesh together.

Winter’s story-telling is so powerful it takes some effort to snap out of it and come into the present when she stops. I could well imagine Margaret’s impatience.

I liked the way the author establishes similarities between Margaret’s and Winter’s stories although they’re from different times. There’s an angle about twin siblings in both their lives that affects them deeply. Margret had a twin sister who died at birth. She keeps imaging her, seeing her ghost in her own reflection, so clearly, she’s almost an entity of her own. 

The line between mental illness and haunting gets blurred along the way and there are times when it is difficult to figure out which is which. The mystery remains skilfully preserved.

A lot of fabulous books stumble towards the end. It is either hurried or abrupt or too neatly tied in to be believable. This one struck a great balance. There was a bit of a tragedy yet it managed to end on a warm and positive note. I could find no fault at all.

One Complaint

The name of the book is somewhat misleading and the thirteenth tale is not really much of a tale at all so don’t give the title too much thought. However, it IS the beginning of Winter’s story in a way. That’s as much as I can let on.

Also, I would have liked to know more about Margaret’s relationship with her mother.

Trigger Warnings

Like I’ve already mentioned this is a dark book. It contains instances of self-harm and violence. There is also implied incest.

Last thought: If you like Gothic fiction, pick it up right away. Even if you’re on the fence about it, give it a shot. It is not a book one will forget in a hurry.

* * * * * * * * Spoiler Alert * * * * * * * *

Do NOT read any further it if you haven’t read the book it will completely spoil it for you. If you have, I need to clarify something.

Do you think it possible that the unnamed heroine (now Vida Winter) killed Adeline? Adeline hated her and probably Winter hated her back. Besides Adeline wanted to kill her so it makes sense for Winter to try to do the same for her survival. So she sets fire to Adeline. Emmeline tries to save her twin and that’s how she gets the burns. Winter saves Emmeline and makes sure Adeline dies. Given that she is such a practiced story-teller she could have made it all up. Where’s the guarantee she told Margret the truth?

Have you read the book? Do you think this is possible?

2 Replies to “The Thirteenth Tale #BookReview”

  1. Tulika, I absolutely loved this book. The way the story weaves in all these complicated characters and the back stories made it unputdownable. 🙂 My theory was that Vida Winter was schizophrenic and imagined it all. But that may be too simplistic. 😀


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