Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

This book ticked all my boxes.thirteenthtale The first line of the blurb had me gripped:

‘Tell me the truth.’ It is a simple request, but that shakes the reclusive and enigmatic novelist, Vida Winter, to her very core.

Now that’s what you call a hook – it raises so many questions and I bought this book simply to get the answers. But this is not just the story of Vida Winter. It is also the story of her biographer, Margaret Lea, who has her own secrets and is haunted by her own ghost.

This not a ghost story of the bangs and fizzing lights variety. This is about two women haunted by their pasts and the people in it. Margaret is as tucked away from the land of the living as Vida is, but through Margaret’s mini biographies of those long dead, Vida senses they have even more in common. Margaret goes to her because she intrigued by Vida’s letter which declares her determination to finally tell the truth. This is some declaration from a novelist whose fictions about her life rival the fiction of her books. In various interviews she has been the secret daughter of a priest and a schoolmistress, the runaway child of a French courtesan and a street child from the East End. The truth however, proves a far more interesting tale than the ones she has woven before, but just as remarkable. If not, quite frankly, as believable.

It’s a novel of two voices, Margaret’s as she tells her story (what there is of it) and Vida’s as Margaret transcribes her story word for word. Vida is easily the most dominant voice, but that is hardly difficult when she only has Margaret for competition. Spiky and imperious, Vida steps into the novel with a letter that demands Margaret’s presence to write her biography. It’s not surprising then that Margaret’s voice pales in comparison. In fact, Margaret’s story, which hinges on only one point (which I won’t reveal as it’s one of the first little shocks of the book) is really crushed by the richness of Vida’s tale. And then crushed further by its endless repetition.

I finished The Thirteenth Tale in two days, despite its length. It’s a ripping good yarn and in some ways reminded me of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger with the decaying mansion of Vida’s childhood, Angelfield, rivalling Water’s creation, Hundreds Hall. It is peopled with characters – the crisp and organised governess Hester, the interfering doctor and right at the centre of this, the red-haired twins Adeline and Emmeline. But this book does have it’s downsides. Margaret is plain by her own admission, the sort of woman you’d pass in the street and for me she was a little too plain and faint on the page, particularly beside Vida. I often felt frustrated by her inability to step into the world and start living. As her story pivots around one event so far in her past she cannot even remember it, she just felt like a plot device to get Vida talking. Often I found her so dreary I put the book down, but I picked it back up again because Setterfield proves herself a master of the page-turner. No explanation is ever as straightforward as it appears.

Vida’s story is much more compelling than Margaret’s, though I have to admit that I didn’t think the twist was particularly clever, in fact I felt a little cheated by it. In places Vida’s story goes on too long and relies too much on coincidence. It reaches an hysterical pitch that I could really have done without. By the end I also felt that the story had reached such a dramatic level that it no longer rang true. And then it reached the point where I stopped believing it. I half-hoped that Margaret would eventually discover that Vida’s beginnings were actually as mundane as anyone’s. In some ways, I was disappointed that such a discovery was not made. In fact, I was heartily disappointed by the final third or so of the book.

The last few chapters are especially disappointing. When we leave Vida and are left with only Margaret for company, the real weakness of the book is revealed and I was in a hurry to get away from her as soon as possible. Dull really doesn’t go far enough to describe Margaret. The wrapping up of her tale is far too neat, especially as I didn’t think it was well-rooted in the story. And her mother, an interesting but frustratingly peripheral character, is continually sidelined when actually I was interested in the story she could tell. She probably had far more to say than Margaret. It all goes on a little too long and could have done with some extra pruning. This book is good, but it could have been astonishingly good if Margaret had been a different character.

However, despite the faults, this is a wonderful and rich debut novel and I look forward to what  Setterfield writes next.

 

Orion, 2006. ISBN-10: 0752875736. 416pp.

8 comments on “The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

  1. Anne Brooke
    March 9, 2010

    Lovely review! I did enjoy this book and had the same issues with it and the same need to complete it as you did. Great to see it reviewed here 🙂

    Axxx

  2. Lisa
    March 9, 2010

    Was really keen to read this review, Nikki, as I just couldn’t get on with this book at all. It’s been a few years since I attempted to read it but I think it was indeed the rather dull Margaret that put me off. Seems like I missed out on some great storytelling from the fabulous-sounding Vida. I’ve already given this book away or I’d give it another go. Still, great review!

  3. liz
    March 9, 2010

    It is a book with failings as you pointed out but I loved the book for words and the way they are woven – I haven’t it in ages but I recall the imagery. Thanks for reminding of how much I enjoyed it although at times found the same frustrations.

  4. I have had this book sitting on my shelf for a couple of years now and I have a feeling I’m going to love it when I get around to reading it. Thanks for the review and reminding me I have to read it soon!

  5. Nikki
    March 9, 2010

    I’m glad that I was not the only one to find the same failings in the book. I’d love to talk to Diane Setterfield about Margaret because as her creator she is bound to love her. Also I’d just love to know why she took the decision to write Margaret that way. Because the rest of the book is so good, I look forward to the next one.

  6. Christine
    March 9, 2010

    I had many of the same feelings-the overwhelming number of coincidences, the sense that somehow the author was “hiding the ball” a bit with true story of Vida Winter’s origins, Margret as a woman who self consciously chose not to live. . . and the constant self conscious literary references! The book was so intent on seeming highbrow. And I say this as a woman who loves Dorothy Sayers and can place hardly any of her references! But despite all of that, it was a page turner. Thanks for another insight. (If you do talk to the author, tell her my book club loved it.)

  7. Hannah
    May 6, 2011

    First off, it’s Adeline, not Adelaide. Secondly, I think Margaret as a more timid character is the counter to Vida and therefore the mirroring character of the twin theme that recurres in this book, it would have been overwhelming, less realistic and simply not keeping with the theme if Margaret was equally as “fiery” as Vida. Her nature was natural and realistic, because agyer all it’s not a circus that needs to flail around with shiny objects to keep you interested. You have to enjoy the nuances and the characters for who they are. It was realistic and one of the most beautiful stories written in the 21st century. I respect your opinion, but don’t mistake a descension from a climax as “slow” it is exactly what it’s meant to be, a steady descension.

  8. niks87
    May 6, 2011

    Sorry about the mistake regarding the names, I have corrected it.

    I did really enjoy this book, it’s one I’ve returned to (I don’t often return to books unless I really enjoy them) and I was pleased to discover that I got even more out of it the second time. I appreciated the wealth of detail, but I still think that often Margaret is overshadowed by Vida. I don’t mean that I think Margaret should have been louder, more outgoing, more eccentric, I wasn’t looking for another Vida. But I felt that there was such a wealth of detail in Vida’s tale and character that Margaret struggled to hold her own.

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This entry was posted on March 9, 2010 by in Entries by Nikki, Uncategorized and tagged , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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