REVIEW: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield centers around the life of reclusive author, Vida Winter, who has spent the last few years creating a series of alternate lives for herself.  Now ill and  nearing the end of her life, Miss Winter decides it is time to tell the truth and come clean about the events of her life. Thus she sets her sites on, Margaret Lea, a biographer more interested in the dead that lie in books and archives then in living subjects. However, when Margaret receives a letter from Miss Winter inviting her to her home, her curiosity is piqued and she begins reading Miss Winter’s most famous collection of short stories.  Margaret goes to see Miss Winter unsure of whether or not she should accept the offer to be the biographer of a woman who has lied to so many journalists in the past, and just when she thinks she makes up her mind, Miss Winter draws her in with one simple sentence: “Once upon a time, there were twins.”

The novel consists largely of Vida Winter’s narration of her past telling the story of a house in Angelfield and of her parents, Isabelle and Charlie, and the staff The Missus and John-the-Dig.  Miss Winter’s narration of her past and Angelfield is juxtaposed with Margaret’s own musings about her own twin sister.  Told with the pace of the mystery, The Thirteenth Tale expertly weaves ends of several stories into a wonderful tapestry of sisterhood and friendship with books being the epicenter of this lovely novel.

The book reads much like a work of classic literature with a setting that reminded me of an old estate and a large garden and the absence of any modern day technology to draw away from the drama and feeling of the story.  In a sense the little aspects of this book are so subtle and slight that once the story concludes and the mystery of Vida Winter’s wife is solves, the tiny insignificant things seem to have a greater purpose in the plot.  In this fashion, The Thirteenth Tale remains a page turning experience while at the same time keeping the simple yet sophisticated narrative voice of reluctant Margaret Lea.

In retrospect, it is hard for me to find anything at fault with the story,  while some chapters did seem to rage on about certain niche areas of literary history, in hindsight, most of the prose and the theoretical games posed by Miss Winter’s narrative are worthwhile and in the end leave the reader looking at symbols that are so slight and delicate that a reader with a cursory glance would never even register that they were there.

I have to say that I was very sorry to see this book end. The story was so original and crafted so beautifully that I am looking forward to see what else Diane Setterfield has up her sleeve in her future literary efforts.  In the meantime as we await another literary masterpiece by Setterfield, I recommend picking up a copy of Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger for another story of twins and ghosts that is sure to please those with insatiable appetites for books about sisters and ghosts.

Final Grade: A-


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