Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to find a letter on her steps. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history.

While pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.

* * *

Sometimes I struggle to find suggestions for our votes, and I often turn to Goodreads as a source of ideas. The website has a rather useful “Readers Also Enjoyed” link for every book, and that is how I found this title. It had won a few awards and sounded interesting, so it seemed like a good choice even though I was unfamiliar with both the title and the author. As an avid book reader, I was enthused by the prospect of reading a book about an insatiable reader who lives in a bookshop and gets to write the biography of a mysterious author. The added interest of a dark and mysterious past made this title fairly irresistible and I expected a suitably gothic tone to remind me of such classics as Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. I was not disappointed. It proved to be as entertaining as I had hoped, although the group did have a few reservations about some of the plot points.

There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”

Ms Setterfield’s words are certainly true of her own writing. This tale grabbed me from the very beginning and kept me enraptured to the end. I do have a few minor criticisms about the believability of some of the plot points, but the standard of writing was excellent throughout. This truly was an ode to literature and the special magic of story-telling as a form of escape and also as a vehicle for exploring, and possibly redefining, the truth.

Ms Winter has made a career of creating multiple origin stories for herself, so that every single interview has a totally different set of personal information about her and she entices Margaret into writing her biography by simply offering to reveal ‘the truth’. However, it soon becomes clear that ‘the truth’ is not quite what we are receiving, and that Ms Winter is still struggling to be completely honest about the past. She has spent her entire life hiding her true identity and, although she now feels compelled to reveal everything before she dies, it is a very hard habit for her to break. She insists on presenting her life as a series of tales and refuses to allow questions from Margaret so that she can control the sequence in which her secrets are exposed. This manipulation of the audience could be seen as simply an extension of the tale-weaving skills that have made her a bestselling author, but it also allows Ms Winter to hint at secrets before she finally works up the courage to reveal them.

Interestingly, we have not one but two unreliable narrators. From the very beginning we know that Ms Winter has previously lied about her history, so we approach her stories with a certain amount of skepticism. However, Margaret begins the book as a character that bibliophiles can identify with very easily, so much so that she borders on being a Mary Sue because she lives a life that seems ideal in so many ways. But as we learn more about her past as the single conjoined twin who survived separation surgery, it becomes increasingly clear that Ms Winter is not the only one with a family history of mental issues. The apparently clear-headed, capable woman that we meet at the start of the book soon morphs into something of a Gothic heroine herself, one who eventually submits to a bout of Bronte-esque melancholy and is prescribed a rousing course of Sherlock Holmes by the local doctor. We begin to doubt her sanity and the ending definitely left the book group with the impression that she is not quite as normal as one would expect in a narrator.

A second link between these two characters is the issue of twins as Ms Winter reveals her true name to be Adeline March, twin to Emmeline. Unlike Margaret, Adeline grew up with her twin, but in a highly unhealthy and mentally unstable environment which had disturbing effects on both girls. Whilst the family was wealthy, owning a large house and estate, a heavy dose of insanity was passed down through the generations and the twins were raised in a chaotic and squalid environment. Resisting any attempt to normalize them, they finally reach adulthood as almost feral creatures that disappear from the area when the house burns down.

Whilst the descriptions of the twins and their immediate family are evocative and compelling they do present the reader with one giant problem. How can the highly articulate Vida Winter be the violent and apparently illiterate Adeline? How could this wild creature ever change so dramatically, even when the responsibility for running the house falls onto her bony shoulders? I will not spoil the explanation for this apparent impossibility, but it does undermine the reader’s belief in Ms Winter’s honesty to quite a considerable extent. The group found the explanation itself almost unbelievable and thought that it was the biggest problem with the entire book. I am not sure if a slight alteration in the depiction of the twins could have helped, but I suspect that it would have detracted from the slightly melodramatic, gothic atmosphere of the book. It was also necessary to justify the actions taken by Ms Winter. If we are to believe that Mrs Rochester is locked in the attic for a very good reason, then she needs to be truly and completely insane, not just a little bit ‘off’. So it is with Adeline: her story is horrifying and yet it is necessary to explain everything that has happened.

Despite these few quibbles, the group and I thoroughly recommend this title to anyone with a love of reading, books and libraries.

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