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.

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One Response to The Thirteenth Tale – Diane Setterfield

  1. Esa says:

    I totally agree with your comments about the serendipitous nature of books. I have had the same experience lately, but by the same token, the reader must also be open to succumb to all that the book has to offer.

    I read this book a few years ago. It was from the library, and if I’d had a copy on hand I may well have jumped right into it again, following your review.

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