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.
‘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.