Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield

Title: The Thirteenth Tale
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Bond Street Books (Doubleday), 2006 (Hardcover)
Length: 408 pages
Genre: Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: November 10, 2014
Finished: November 18, 2014

From the inside cover:

All children mythologize their birth...So begins the prologue of reclusive Vida Winter's collection of stories, which are as famous for the mystery of the missing thirteenth tale as they are for the delight and enchantment of the twelve that do exist.

The enigmatic Winter has spent six decades creating various outlandish life histories for herself -all of them inventions that have brought her fame and fortune but have kept her violent and tragic past a secret. Now old and ailing, she at last wants to tell the truth about her extraordinary life. She summons biographer Margaret Lea, a young woman for whom the secret of her own birth, hidden by those who loved her most, remains an ever-present pain. Struck by a curious parallel between Miss Winter's story and her own, Margaret takes on the commission.

As Vida disinters the life she meant to bury for good, Margaret is mesmerized. It is a tale of gothic strangeness featuring the Angelfield family, including the beautiful and willful Isabelle, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline, a ghost, a governess, a topiary garden and a devastating fire.

Margaret succumbs to the power of Vida's storytelling but remains suspicious of the author's sincerity. She demands the truth from Vida, and together they confront the ghosts that have haunted them while becoming, finally, transformed by the truth themselves.

The Thirteenth Tale is a love letter to reading, a book for the feral reader in all of us, a return to that rich vein of storytelling that our parents loved and that we loved as children. Diane Setterfield will keep you guessing, make you wonder, move you to tears and laughter and, in the end, deposit you breathless yet satisfied back upon the shore of your everyday life.

The ladies in my English workroom recommended this to me, you'd think one of them was a dealer of illegal substances the way they were passing this around. Of course I've learned to trust the recommendations of fellow English teachers, so I gave this a go. I was not disappointed, this story was every bit engrossing and beautiful, I didn't want the book to end.

Margaret lives in the flat above her father's antique bookstore, and in addition to manning the store and being well-versed in the keeping of old books, she also dabbles in writing biographies. One day she receives a letter from the famous writer Vida Winter, asking her to come and be the author of Vida's life story. Margaret, ever the academic, researches the matter first. She finds that Miss Winter has told over a dozen different accounts of her life to various reporters and newspapers around the release dates of her various books. Margaret is intrigued but cautious, and makes Miss Winter give her some facts that can be checked by the public record before she completely agrees to write her story. Miss Winter then takes Margaret on a journey of the history of the Angelfield family, of George and Mathilde, their children Charlie and Isabelle, their daughters Adeline and Emmeline, and the secrets and scandal that followed the family as the years passed. Through research and a lot of investigating, Margaret slowly puts the pieces together involving a kind caterer living near the ruins of Angelfield, the ghost who is rumoured to haunt the grounds, and who Miss Winter really is.

This book is, first of all, a great homage to the act of reading in general. Margaret loves books more than other people (without sacrificing her likability as a character), she is well-read and loves the old classics like Jane Eyre, and she gets free reign of her father's old bookstore where she encounters rare books that people never see. When Margaret finally reads Miss Winter's books (because she spurns modern literature most of the time), she falls in love with Vida's storytelling that captivates her interest. Miss Winter's accounts of the Angelfield family read like a classic themselves, so this is almost like reading two distinct stories that eventually merge to become one. Plus, who doesn't love Jane Eyre references in stories?

Also, something that I noticed was that although the sections of the story involving Margaret and the elderly Miss Winter take place supposedly in modern times (there's nothing to indicate if it takes place in an earlier decade), and Margaret does a lot of research as part of her investigation, not a single electronic device is mentioned. No cell phones, no internet, all information gathered in this story is done the old-fashioned way: using books and calling around to get any info you can't find via books. I have to say I really enjoyed that aspect as a person who came of age just as technology and the internet was exploding, I first learned how to do research the old-fashioned way (with actual encyclopedia volumes) and the technology that didn't come out till I was in high school only sought to make the research process easier but didn't replace that earlier knowledge.

Secondly, the story is wonderfully engaging and keeps you guessing as to the outcome. Is Miss Winter really who she says she is? What is up with the twins, and for that matter, the whole Angelfield family? Who is Aurelius' real mother? What's the deal with Margaret's story? Considering the premise of the entire book is an old lady telling her life-story in a musty English estate house, the end product is nothing short of amazing.

If you're a reader and a lover of literature in general, you need to read this. The style of engrossing storytelling full of mystery and suspense echoes traditional novels that we don't often see today.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how the image includes the colourful details that Margaret describes when she sees Miss Winter's books for the first time.

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