Monthly Archives: February 2011

The Thirteenth Tale – Diane Setterfield

“A good book should leave you slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it”. (William Styron)

The perfect paragraph to describe how I felt about this book.
I found it browsing through an used book section in a weekend market. Rows upon rows of heaped books sealed in plastic covers, like miniature towers.

The Thirteenth Tale was the last brick on one of these towers, sitting there like the finishing touch, the end of a building process.
The name itself was enough to arouse my curiosity but I didn’t buy it then. By the next day I felt sorry I didn’t. Luck or fate or the God of Books made it so that a friend of mine went to that market not long after and I asked her to look for the book. That is how it got to me in the end. More and more, I’m beginning to think that we are meant to read some books at a certain time to fully appreciate their stories.

I had started reading it on the 31 of January and finished by the 2 of the following month. A nice combination of 2’s. And if I add the mention of 2 of my favorite books which are brought forth at different times (Wuthering Heights is one) as the story goes on and the fact that the story revolves around twins, the number 2 becomes even more prominent.

Two women are the protagonists, one telling her story, the other listening and taking notes: Mrs Winter, the famous author of 12 previously published stories, now old and ailing, and Miss Lea, a young avid reader, whose mission is to put on paper the last story, the elusive 13th tale, the famous writer’s life story. Others have tried to convince Mrs Winter to let them write it but she has always evaded the truth, conjuring up other tales instead, to lure them away from her best kept secret: her true identity.
The book has the elements of a Gothic story: the old large house, tragic love stories, a baby abandoned on a doorstep with a crumpled page from Jane Eyre (this is the second) stuck in the bag he was placed in, even a “ghost”. It tells about the Angelfield family, a man’s obsession with his sister – the beautiful Isabelle, and the birth of twins Emmeline and Adeline. As the book slowly reveals its secrets, one cannot help but make assumptions and try to get one step ahead of the writer. Is Mrs Winter one of the twins, and if yes, which one, the quiet, sweet, plump Emmeline, or the wiry, energetic, strange Adeline? With every word, with every event, the reader is brought closer to the riddle only to be offered an unexpected answer at the end.

I found myself turning page after page, anxious to see the mystery solved. The real world became just a place I had to go back to but didn’t really want to, and I resurfaced from the story as if from underwater, dazed and totally ensnared in its events.
The poetic language, the vulnerability of the young writer, the suffering of the elder one, past and present, pain and relief, all intertwined to make for a very enjoyable read.

Posted in The Book on The Nightstand | 1 Comment

Her Eyes

The street is like a great storyteller, waiting for me whenever I have the time to listen to one of its stories. Sometimes it’s just a jumble of words and images but every now and then it tells me a story, a short fragment from its vast collection. That day I listened and it told me about the girl with the marble eyes.

The people bring the street to life. They ride the motorcycles and push the food carts along the crowded sidewalks, or travel in a songteaw like me. There isn’t much space in one of those vehicles but ten people can usually squeeze together on the small benches. A few days ago I was in one (in my imagination I pretend they are carriages and I’m riding through open country fields and not in a polluted, crowded city) took out my book (The Thirteenth Tale) and got lost in it until a sudden braking made the words jump from the page and I looked for some fixed thing to grab hold of. Then I looked straight ahead and totally forgot my book. She was sitting across from me, our knees almost touching because of the cramped space, and the first thing I noticed were her eyes. Somehow they reminded me of the aristocratic Siamese cats I’d seen in a cartoon as a child, with their upward elongated slanted eyes, the pupils a rich dark brown that was almost black, and so perfectly round and big it seemed almost impossible that the eyes themselves could contain them. They looked like two shiny marbles and I was afraid that the next gentle shake of her head would make them tumble into her lap. Gliding easily from left to right, I imagined them rolling slowly over the smooth surface of the eye.

I tried hard not to stare so I shifted my gaze to the woman sitting next to her. She was older and fatigue had marked her eyes, making the light brown pupils look very much like a piece of cloth faded from too much washing, the whites streaked with tiny red lines and actually not white at all but a sickly yellow. She blinked and looked away and my gaze returned to the girl with the marble eyes. She never once looked straight at me but always somewhere behind me and into the street. Her eyes were always moving and I became absorbed with this new occupation of watching them glide effortlessly from side to side. Hands folded neatly in her lap, the blue and white uniform of a schoolgirl, straight black hair tied up in a ponytail with a brown piece of lace; face devoid of any makeup, a mouth with full lips slightly thrust upward and the flat small nose common to the Asians, a wide forehead but not high, and those eyes that seemed to dominate all her other facial features.

I looked at the book in my lap but its magic pull had been broken so I raised my eyes to her again.

The white surrounding the pupil had almost the crispness of the snow, making a brilliant contrast with the brown of the pupils. Her expression was neutral, serious. I could not see the trace of a smile nor the shadow of sadness, no movement of lips, no movement of hands. She just sat there almost like a statue if not for the motion of those dark shiny pupils: left to right and left again.

I had to get off, my stop was close, and I fumbled for a coin with which to pay for my trip. Pushed the small button on the roof of the songteaw and braced myself for the customary lurch and brake. Never get up until it comes to a complete stop, that’s one lesson I learned the hard way. Got off, placed my coin in the outstretched palm of the driver and started walking, leaving the girl with the marble eyes to carry her story forward.

Posted in Short Stories | 1 Comment

Happy Chinese New Year!

Here we are, in the year of the Rabbit. May it bring you peace, health and everything else your heart desires.


Posted in Favorite Sounds | 1 Comment


Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune

Without the words,

And never stops at all… (Emily Dickinson)

Posted in Quotes I Like | 1 Comment