Recommended by a friend and my love for gothic novels, made me pick up the copy of “The Thirteenth Tale” by Diane Setterfiled. I generally approach contemporary writers for some trepidation – much like Margaret Lea, the narrator of our book – but from the very first chapter I was impressed.
The book’s opening sentence “It was November” is the perfect starting for a dark, ghost story. For this is what it is; a ghost story of sorts. Maybe not of supernatural beings, but haunted memories of family secrets, lies, pain and deaths.
Margaret Lea is a young recluse and a biographer, who lives above her father’s bookshop in Yorkshire. That she prefers books over people, is understandable and I think quite sensible. The story starts with an intriguing letter Margaret receives from Ms. Vida Winter, a famous novelist of her time requesting Margaret to be her biographer. Ms. Winter is most known for her collection of short stories “Thirteen tales of Change and Desperation”; where famously there is no Thirteenth Tale. It has been desire of the general populace to always know what that untold story is.
Now no one really knows about Ms. Winter’s life or her origins. Any journalist who has asked the relevant questions has been given a different answer every time. So why does she want this little known biographer to tell her story? Will she finally tell the truth about herself? Will she disclose her thirteenth tale?
It’s with these questions that Margaret goes to visit Ms. Winter. After an unusual interview, Margaret agrees to write the biography of Ms. Winter. It is at this point the where the story within the story takes hold and we travel back to Ms. Winter’s childhood in Angelfield
The writing is rich, fluid and has an ominous undertone which makes it deliciously gothic. There are bits and pieces which are truly chilling and grotesque; the incestuous relationship between siblings, the “something not right” with the children, the cruel governess, the rumoured ghost of Angelfield, the unnoticed murder. As you go deeper the horrors of Angelfield are truly revolting, but what keeps you hooked is the sense that there is still a larger horror to be unraveled.
Margaret is consumed by the story, as she fights her own demons. The book heavily focuses on the relationship of the “twins” – the ones in Angelfield and the Margaret’s own dead twin. Personally I found Margaret’s grieving for a twin that she never knew a little tedious and overtly sentimental. These were the only parts of the book that I wish were gone.
However, “The Thirteenth Tale”, is complex plot driven novel written extremely well. There are evident homage to “The Turn of the Screw”, “Jane Eyre” and “Lady Audley’s Secret” which at times are too obvious but still interesting anyone who loves this genre.