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Book Review - The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

A Storied Past

The Thirteenth Tale
by
Diane Setterfield

Published by Atria Books

Review by W. R. Greer


The Thirteenth Tale is a story about stories. Vida Winter, the woman whose story is at the center of Diane Setterfield's novel, tells her biographer, "Everybody has a story. When are you going to tell me yours?"

The biographer and narrator of this novel is Margaret Lea. She lives a quiet life outside of London with her parents, works in her father's antiquarian bookstore, and writes the occasional short biography of persons whose lives were so obscure that they've been almost lost to history. Her world revolves around books. She devotes six hours a night to reading, and loves the old stories where she can lose herself in their romance, intrigue, revenge, and madness before all the plot lines ultimately come together for a happy and satisfying ending. Jane Eyre is a book she often refers to as her favorite. Margaret doesn't have much of a life beyond her books and her father's store. She carries a scar, both physical and emotional, from her birth, a tragic event which has left her mother unable to enjoy any happiness in her life.

Margaret gets a letter from Vida Winter, perhaps the most renowned novelist of her time, asking Margaret to write her life's story. Vida Winter was perhaps most famous for her Tales of Courage and Desperation, which contains twelve different fables retold in her own fashion. Rumors abound that there were supposed to be thirteen tales, and for years, everyone wondered about what happened to the thirteenth tale.

Margaret is perplexed why she was chosen by Vida Winter for this job, and she's wary of the assignment. Over the years, Vida Winter has fed countless interviewers fanciful accounts of her life's story. Vida takes a certain amount of enjoyment in her lies and her stories. She finds them much more interesting than truth, as she explains to Margaret in her letter:

My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with truth itself. What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story? What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney? When the lightning strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and rain taps at the window with its long fingernails? No. When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don't expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid. What you need are the plump comforts of a story. The soothing, rocking safety of a lie.
Vida Winter's problem is that she's running out of stories to tell. Her novels were a way to ignore her own story and push it to the back of her mind, but now as she's facing her final days, her story is demanding to be told. For reasons that are unclear to Margaret, Vida Winter wants to tell this story to her. And what a story it is.

Vida's story goes back to Angelfield, "Angelfield the village. Angelfield the house. And the Angelfield family itself." It's a family with money and property, but they have no aristocratic titles. It's a large house where the housekeeper is called the Missus and the gardener comes from a family that has tended the garden for generations. Being from "the big house" comes with expectations and privilege as well as the ability to get away with improper, or even scandalous, behavior. This was almost a way of life for the Angelfields. In many ways, they're perhaps the most dysfunctional of families.

Vida's story goes back a generation before her birth. It involves a mother dying during childbirth, a beautiful daughter, a cruel son, and a husband unable to cope with his grief. This is a pattern that will repeat itself. Lovers are debilitated by grief, driven to madness and a hermit-like existence. Children run wild in the absence of any firm parenting. There are deaths, children born out of wedlock, ghosts, a governess, a kind country doctor, scandal, a topiary garden, and a fire that eventually destroyed the Angelfield home. To say any more would spoil the unraveling of the story.

Margaret resides at Vida Winter's Yorkshire home while the story is doled out in pieces to her. She realizes, though, that she's not getting the whole story, or at least not yet. The staff at the home interacts with her as little as possible. Something is digging in the garden at night and on some nights, it sounds like someone is softly singing the same five notes over and over again. Margaret makes a few trips to Angelfield to view the ruined home, discovering more surprises to the story. Yet, there are parallels in Vida's story to Margaret's life, reopening her own psychic wounds. A walk on the moors nearly does her in, and the story reaches its climax on a stormy night when the phone lines are down. Jane Eyre moves from being a book often discussed in The Thirteenth Tale to being an important part of the story. Margaret must put it all together, though, to understand Vida's life and the mystery of the missing thirteenth tale.

Part of the enjoyment of The Thirteenth Tale is Diane Setterfield's obvious enjoyment of stories. Margaret is a lover of reading and Vida is a lover of storytelling. Through them, Diane Setterfield explores what it is that makes a good story valuable to all readers. It's also evident that she wants to re-create the gothic story in the big house with its servants, dramas, and family secrets. It's an obvious homage to Jane Eyre and its sisterhood of similar novels. This is also one of its weaknesses. To create the chaos that spawned Vida Winter, Diane Setterfield had to remove any dominant male influences from the novel, rendering them madmen incapable of interacting with the girls and women left in the Angelfield house. The men are removed to the supporting cast, if you will, being the kindly doctor, the gardener, Margaret's father, and the solicitor. I suppose it's a small price to pay to set up the story, because the story is what's important. Who needs the truth?

Vida Winter becomes a character that dominates this novel. Her clear grasp on what makes a story interesting reflects on Diane Setterfield's skill as well. The Thirteenth Tale is a riveting story that unravels with surprises and discoveries, where seemingly innocuous comments and events early in the novel actually bear great weight in the story's denouement. It's the type of novel that tempts the reader to reread it once they're finished, just to enjoy how all the parts come together once again. If you like to read and if you like a good story, Diane Setterfield has an entertaining one to share with you.

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