The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The last book I read in 2010 was The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. This is a book that has been hugely popular with book bloggers over the last few years and as usual, I appear to be one of the last to read it. I don’t have any excuse for this other than that certain books just seem to pass me by!

The Thirteenth Tale is the story of the reclusive and secretive Vida Winter, the world’s most popular author. Despite Winter’s fame, her past is shrouded in mystery; every time a new book is published she agrees to be interviewed – and every time she gives the journalist a different version of her life story. Now that she’s approaching the end of her life, she decides it’s time to tell the truth and summons Margaret Lea to write her biography.

Margaret is surprised by the request – after all, she’s just an amateur biographer who works in her father’s bookshop – but she agrees to visit Miss Winter and listen to what she has to say. As the story of Winter’s childhood unfolds, Margaret discovers what it is they have in common and why she was chosen to write the biography.

The Thirteenth Tale borrows elements of classic novels such as Wuthering Heights, The Woman in White, Jane Eyre, and The Turn of the Screw and it felt instantly familiar to me: the Yorkshire moors, twins, mistaken identities, ghosts and governesses all play a part in the story. I’m not saying this book was unoriginal or an exact copy of any other novel – it wasn’t – but Diane Setterfield was obviously trying to capture the overall mood of those gothic classics. Not only are the books I just mentioned referred to over and over again in the story, but they are cleverly incorporated into the plot.

Yet despite the familiarity, I didn’t guess everything that was going to happen. When the solution to the mystery (or one of the mysteries, as there are a few) was revealed, it surprised me – although the clues had been there all along and I’m sure if I read the book again it would be obvious.

One thing that struck me while I was reading this book was that we are never told when the story was supposed to be set. There are no historical references to suggest when the events of the book are taking place. Even Margaret’s timeframe, although obviously fairly recent, is still vague. I’m sure this was deliberate and it does help to give the story a timeless feel, but I’m one of those readers who likes to know when a story is set!

I can see why The Thirteenth Tale has been so popular because it really is a book for book lovers, with lots of great quotes like this:

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.

And this:

Do they sense it, these dead writers, when their books are read? Does a pinprick of light appear in their darkness? Is their soul stirred by the feather touch of another mind reading theirs? I do hope so.

While I didn’t love this book as much as I hoped I would (which I suspect might just be because I’ve read too many books of this type recently), it was fun, entertaining and very quick to read for a book with over 450 pages. It was also a perfect read for late December – a book to curl up with indoors while it’s cold and dark outside.

18 thoughts on “The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

  1. Amanda says:

    I pulled this off the shelves in my library by random a couple years back. I’d never seen a review of it or anything, but it sounded intriguing. It was fun. Not particularly memorable, but fun. 🙂

  2. Jo says:

    I loved this book, I think because it appealed to me on so many levels. I had to go and find my review to remember what I said about it. It was a great book to curl up with.

    I look forward to the authors next book if there is to be one.

  3. everybookandcranny says:

    This book holds a special place in my heart because in an indirect way it is responsible for rekindling my interest in reading. After I read it in, I think, 2007, it led me to Rebecca which led me to other “gothic” books, which led me to the classics.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed this one too! It’s great when a book leads you to discover other books that you wouldn’t previously have thought about reading.

  4. Mae says:

    This sounds like my kind of book – a book about bookish things! I do have mixed feelings about this though because I remember some controversy when the book was released and it was flooded through to book bloggers, many (apparently) who didn’t make a disclaimer that it was part of a promotional thing : blog about it, free book.

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t realise there had been a controversy – I wasn’t blogging at the time when it was released, or even aware of book blogs. I think you’d probably like it though, if you enjoy books about books!

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