Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale

The Thirteenth Tale

The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield’s evocative novel on the connection and bond between siblings, revolves around two sets of twins: Margaret Lea and her deceased twin Moira, and tragedy-born twins Emmeline and Adeline March. The story is two-fold, one story in another story: you have Margaret while she goes about her task to write the life story of reclusive, mysterious author Vida Winter… and then you have Vida Winter narrating her story; Vida, the successful writer who’s never told the truth about who she is and where she came from. She’s finally coming clean.

I will admit that I picked up this novel purely on reading that it was a “spellbinding, lyrical debut” as I’ve always been drawn to rather lyrical, lush stories–and always felt disconnected with rather terse ones. I raved about it some time ago when I started reading it, and I’ve since finished it. It was definitely a good read.

There are three things that I want to highlight about this book, which might very well be the deciding point if this book interests you:

  1. I’m usually a quick reader, always wanting to devour each book. But with this book (along with a few others) was worded so wonderfully that I took my time, savoring each word, each phrase. I’m not one for something overly drawn out, because that makes me read even quicker, skip some phrases. Setterfield hit a good balance between lush prose and story speed, which is important. Something too lush will drown me; something too terse isn’t personal to me.
  2. The story revolved around family, bonds, and love. There’s a lot of tragedy, and a lot of abandonment, with dysfunctional people and people who think they know better. But they all served to highlight the (often almost otherworldly) connections between siblings, between twins, to be precise. There wasn’t an extraneous story, a useless thread: I was easily sucked into the story, my full concentration on it.
  3. Vida Winter’s past is a mystery, and because of that, the book itself is a big mystery that keeps one guessing. And guessing. And guessing. It’s so finely weaved together that once you reach the end of Vida’s personal story (“…my story–my own personal story–ended before my writing began. Storytelling has only ever been a way of filling in the time since everything finished.”) you might say, as I did, “why didn’t I see that before?”

Other things that was of interest in me is that there are two writers in this book. Novels about writers are quite interesting for me; now I have two: one a biographer and another a fiction writer. Love of reading and Jane Eyre was another. That’s not to say that the book is perfect: precious few are. The final ending of the book felt a bit too drawn-out, a little contrived: there was such a lot of wrapping up to do that it seemed there were endless epilogues. It was not a slow landing, but one that happened in rather swift gradations.

All in all, though, it was definitely a good book, one of those that I can easily call an escape into another world, another time, another place. One that transforms, and one that speaks of more than just the surface.

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