Margaret Lea has never even read a Vida Winter novel when she receives a letter asking her to write the author's biography. The brilliant and popular writer has spent her life behind a veil of lies fed to eager journalists, but at last, she's decided to tell the truth. And she's going to tell it to Margaret Lea. Margaret travels to Miss Winter's house in Yorkshire, a mansion on the moors, and is told a tale of madness, secrecy and tragedy, the legacy of which still lives on. But is it really the truth, and nothing but the truth?
The Thirteenth Tale is a throwback to the Gothic novels of the nineteenth century, something Diane Setterfield acknowledges within its pages with respect as well as humour. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, as well as several of it's contemporaries, are not only an influence on the story, but play a key role in it. As a lover of Jane Eyre I enjoyed the parallels between my favourite Gothic novel and this newer book, and there are many. Setterfield has taken the Gothicness of of the Brontes, their madness and sinisterness, but left the romance out. I must say I'm glad of this because no author could do justice to the romance of Jane Eyre. But Setterfield has done rather well with its darkness and madness. And then some.
As a mystery, then, this is a very successful book, full of twists and turns and lies and deductions. They are unselfconscious twists, rather than the Twist Goes Here sort of books. They unfold naturally and unhurriedly. I said, mournfully, to a few writing friends the other day, "There's just not enough incest in books these days," and they heartily agreed. Oh, the heady days of Virginia Andrews! I'm hardly a proponent of incest. (Though perhaps I accepted Daisy and Edmund in How I Live Now with a little too much alacrity? Lenore, do you think so? *grin*) I was referring, rather, to the exploration of a taboo subject by a talented author. (Taboos in books are brave and interesting; taboos in films, on the other hand, just seem voyeuristic and squirm-worthy.) The gods must have heard me because I got my wish, and Setterfield handles her taboos extremely well--with just the right amount of scandal and madness.
On the downside, however, the plot moved a little too slowly in my opinion and--horror of all the worst horrors--actually repeated itself at one point. I loathe diary entries within a narrative at the best of times, but when they merely repeat what we already know I start to froth at the mouth. Margaret Lea I couldn't make friends with. See, I'm calling her by her full name instead of just Margaret. Margaret Lea paled into nothing compared to the vibrant, violent, crazy cast of characters she was told about by Vida Winter. I imagine that if Jane Eyre never met Rochester, got depressed and lonely, and fixated on the death of Helen Burns at Lowood, she'd turn out rather like Margaret Lea. Not a pleasant thought.
And may I just ask, where the hell were the ghosts?! This is no fault of Setterfield's, but yours, my dear bloggers! I asked for a chilling ghost story for Peril the First and several of you recommended this tale. But all I got were mad twins and ambiguous mist! Nary a shiver up my spine! Every flit and shadow explainable!
For lovers of English Gothic fiction, classic and otherwise. If you were particularly taken with the mood and characters of Prophecy of the Sisters, you would do well to give this book a go. Though it moves at a slower pace than young adult fiction.