The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Iphigene here.

Purchased out of curiosity as oppose to interest, I didn’t know what to expect of a book whose title by no means called to me. My personal curiosity over the book was born out of seeing the book, since its release, displayed across bookstore shelves in plenty, however if I were to look at the title, bother at the synopsis it didn’t speak to much. After all, isn’t 13 too cliché a number to mean bad luck and the story of a recluse writer, twins, and ghosts didn’t hold much appeal to me. In the end however, with a click of the mouse, I did get myself a copy of the book months ago and realized that it had potential to join the ranks of the books we’ve reviewed for our bimonthly theme this May and June.

Similarities to The Shadow of the Wind

A few books ago I read Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind and on reading this novel by Setterfield and I found certain similarities. It’s possible the similarities lie in the fact both books were considered to have gothic elements to it. The atmosphere in both books, I felt, was dark, damp, dusty and old. Like Zafon’s book, the protagonist in this novel is a child of a bookshop owner who fostered a love for books at such a young age. The difference however may lie in the fact that Margaret Lea, unlike Zafon’s protagonist, prefers nonfiction to fiction. Both novels’ protagonist is caught up in the lives of authors with dark histories waiting to be told. Where Zafon’s scorned author is barely known, Setterfield’s Vida Winter is a well-known author whose biography is a mystery to the world. The similarities however begin and end here, in the frame by which the story is weaved. Setterfield’s novel involves less passion compared to The Shadow of the Wind, for Setterfield’s story does not involve lost lovers, but sisters.

The Myth of Twins

The Olsen Twins

How a story relates to us makes us invest time and effort to it. The recluse author, Vida Winter, convinces Margaret Lea to listen to her story—to be her biographer—-by saying the magic word: Twins. It is a story about twins. The thirteenth tale takes us through the birth and death of what people called strange twins.  According to Wikipedia majority of the world’s literature speak of twins; some may see them as fortuitous while others see them as ominous. Though it is not blatantly stated, the story seems to fit more in the former than the latter.

The author delves into the various myths that surround twins, while we know that somehow science has proven these myths as MYTHS, within the book the reader is asked to suspend such thoughts and be engrossed in the mystery of twins.  Of the many myths, here are the few that Setterfield used to fit into the atmosphere of the book:

  • Twins are two people sharing one soul; hence, the death of one creates a gap/hole for the surviving one.
  • Twins are opposites: a yin and a yang, one is the good twin and the other is the bad twin. In our story, Adeline who is violent and harsh while it is Emmeline is sweet and kind. Yet, both seem a bit in the haughtier side.
  • Twins have ESP or psychic connection: this is mentioned in this book, a sort of feeling for the other, hence the third myth
  • Twins feel each other’s pain: When one suffers, the other feels it.
  • Twin talk (idioglossia): The narrative tells us of Adeline and Emmeline talking in a secret language, which was thought to be easily outgrown. However, they never do.

Setterfield weaves these myths into a story that disturbs and moves you. Parts of it are solid and part misty like fog over the Yorkshire moors. Setterfield fills every corner of her story with more questions than answers, all hidden beneath gossamer.

 The Moors

The Yorkshire Moors

The first time I’ve ever read of the Moors I think was in Secret Garden and it gave off the feeling of a dreary, foggy, and mysterious place. It’s very much the same for the Thirteen Tale.  While Zafon’s book spoke of the narrow cobbled streets of Barcelona, Setterfield gives us the vast isolated space of the Yorkshire moor where the silence is deafening.

The Thirteenth Tale moves from place to place, as it speaks of Margaret Lea’s antiquated book shop, and Vida Winter’s house in the Moors, but it is Angelfield Village where our biographer travels back to as her subject narrates the story of her birth, her family, and the illness the plagues the rotting house of the well-off Angelfield family.

The Eccentricities

The Angelfied family is not without its eccentricities from a neglectful father to a son, but a doting father to a daughter.   To A violent-impish, incestuous relationship between brother and sister, secret births and neglected twins who spoke a secret language. Moreover, the novel doesn’t fall short in putting all this eccentricities to the front; I suppose giving the book a more gothic feel to it. And like movies whose lighting is dusty and musty, this novel captures the obsession and strangeness within the Angelfield estate as if you were breathing the same air with its characters. Reading this book kept me visually entertained. It allowed my imagination to run.

The Secrets

No mysterious or gothic novel will survive without its secrets. The tone, the setting, and the unsaid set the story for secrets. Vida Winters letter of invitation for Margaret Lea to writer her biography contains a phrase, Lea repeats in the novel. It said, “Tell me the truth.” Only to mean that some lie has been told or some details omitted. And in their meeting, the recluse writer says to her biographer:

From tomorrow, I will tell you my story, beginning at the beginning, continuing with the middle, and with the end at the end. Everything in its proper place. No cheating. No looking ahead. No questions. No sneaky glances at the last page.

Why the rule?  Like any story, the secrets unravel in the end. Clues are given all over the place, from the early parts of the novel to its culmination. The revelation fills all the holes and all the secrets of Vida Winter Twin story.

It’s first chapter failed to draw me in, but it was the succeeding chapter that I found myself trapped and enchanted by this wonderful gothic tale.  It’s inclusion in our whodunit bimonthly theme lies in the mystery that while requires no detective to solve, can only be unraveled by a thorough research of the facts and by the story which ties the details together. And like our theme, it is mysterious and suspenseful with people missing, bodies uncovered and birth rights reclaimed.

Dianne Setterfield is a former academic, speciailizing in 20th Century French Literature. She lives in Yorkshire, England. The Thirteenth Tale was a product of her boredom with teaching French Literature. She has yet to release a follow up to her best seller.

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3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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