The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

Book 11

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield, was a “Barnes & Noble Recommends” book. I found it a week or so ago at Half Price Books and started reading it because it was at the top of the pile of To Be Read books that won’t fit on my To Be Read bookcase.

You know those books that you read slowly because you just want to sink into it for awhile? I read this a chapter or two at a time over lunch last week, and I was loving it. Then I dove in an finished it this weekend.


Mousy bookshop chic is hired out of nowhere by England’s pre-eminent novelist to write her biography as she lay dying in Yorkshire. Novelist has famously lied about her life’s story to every interviewer since the beginning of time.

The book is rather blatantly modeled after the gothic novels – the Bronte sisters, etc. – which can be annoying, but mostly I appreciated. It also has the story-within-a-story element, kind of like The Blind Assassin. The difference is that Margaret Atwood made sure that the story-within-a-story did not overshadow the main plot. Setterfield did a much better job of the story-within-a-story than in creating sympathy or empathy for the narrator.

OK, so here is what I liked – Vida Winter, the novelist, talking about why she is finally telling her true life’s story:

“My study throngs with characters waiting to be written. Imaginary people, anxious for a life, who tug at my sleeve, crying, ‘Me next! Go on! My turn!’ I have to select. And once I have chosen, the others go quiet for ten months or a year, until I come to the end of a story and the clamor starts up again.”

Then she talks about this woman in the window, or mirror or whatever, that is patiently waiting for her story to be told.

“The day came when I finished the final draft of my final book. I wrote the last sentence, placed the last full stop. I knew what was coming. The pen slipped from my hand and I closed my eyes. ‘So,’ I hear her say, or perhaps it was me, ‘it’s just the two of us now.”

That is kind of how I imagine it is to be a novelist.

In the great tradition of the great novels, the narrator is far, far less interesting than the subject of the narration. She made great observations about books and readers. One was about starting a new book too quickly, before the “membrane” of the last book finished has a chance to close. I appreciated those thoughts. However, there is a theme of twins and other halves that I found tiresome. For example:

Narrator is a twin whose sister died shortly after their birth. Narrator doesn’t learn about this until the age of ten, snooping around her parents’ stuff. Her mother never recovered from the loss. During the action of the book, she looks up and sees a woman’s face in the window. “My sister!” she thinks. No. Her reflection.

Less of this melodrama and more of her actual relationship with her mother would have suited me better. But then I am complaining about the gothic-novelishness, and that isn’t quite fair.

Whatever my petty gripes, this book kept me engaged and I enjoyed it.

2 Comments on “The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

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