Monday, September 7, 2009

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield - 432 pgs

Book CoverWhen Margaret Lea receives an unexpected letter from the famous author Vida Winter, she is a little perplexed. As an amateur biographer and clerk working in her father's bookstore, she thinks Miss Winter's request for her to create an uncensored biography of her life to be a little odd, as she has had little to no experience in writing professional biographies. In the past, Winter has been very elusive and wily regarding attempts at chronicling her life and seemed as content to feed her inquisitors a pack of lies as to ever give them the truth. Margaret, knowing this about the author and far from being a Vida Winters fan, is unsure if she is the right person for the job. Reluctantly, she agrees to take the commission and heads off for Miss Winter's large estate on the moors. When she arrives, she finds that Winter has become an invalid and that she wishes to finally tell the uncensored events of her life before her illness carries her away. As Winter beings the strange tale of her life, Margaret becomes entranced with the amazing story of the author and her twin sister. It is a Gothic tale of forbidden love, dark secrets, and dangerous jealousies that spark shocking betrayals, a tale that is full to the brim with madness. But as Margret delves deeper, she begins to discover that this tale doesn't only live in the past, for there are strange occurrences and sightings at the estate. As Margaret begins digging into the odd history of the family, she uncovers more strange and unexplained events that she must decipher for herself, and she finally discovers the secret and shocking truth about Vida Winter's past.

I was pleasantly surprised by my reaction to this book. Though there were some aspects that I felt to be a bit over dramatized, I thought the author did a really great job of crafting a modernly Gothic story. The dark and fierce energy that permeated the narrative added a lot of ambiance and flavor to the story and I think that is what really gave the book its genuinely Gothic feel.

The were a lot of pieces to this puzzle, and instead of divulging them all at once, the revelations and mysteries wound themselves though the narrative to be exposed slowly. The tale of Vida Winter's life began with the story of her parents, two people who were mired in an illicit relationship and who were most certainly mad. I found that these sections were a bit bitter to digest, but beautifully crafted. Later sections dealt with the strange lives of the twins and the unbreakable bond they shared throughout their lifetime. This was where the story really picked up steam for me. The tale of the two girls was extremely unusual and interesting, while also being very sad and intense. I found they lived their lives in a very shocking and distressing manner, and it was not surprising to me that they turned out as they did after reading about their situation.

There was a lovely subtlety about this story. Some aspects of the plot were not exactly spelled out for the reader, but rather implied with hints and suggestions. I think using that technique gave the story a lot of depth and penetration, and it was one of the reasons that I so greatly admired this book. The narrative was much more focused on plot, rather than the character-driven novels that I usually seek out, but I found this to be a pleasant change. I was pleased to see that the character creation was not given short shrift even though the book was mainly focused on plot, and felt that the characters were fully three dimensional and sympathetic.

One of the remarkable things about this book was the way that the author was able to hold the tension throughout the entire narrative. As the book progressed and the suspense of the story grew, it was only slightly alleviated by minor revelations and able to continue it's growth toward the final chapters uninterrupted. This made for a very explosive and emotional climax, which I fully relished. The storytelling also had a very natural feel to it, and instead of the artificial style that you get in so may stories of this type, it was a much more organic and measured narrative. I didn't get the sense that the story was overly contrived, and despite the heightened drama, the story didn't feel manipulative.

There were also a huge number of twists in the story. I have had other reading experiences where I felt that the author tried to do too much in one book, and ended up feeling that the author had used the ploy of engaging too many plot twists as a substitute for intelligent and moving writing. This is not the case for The Thirteenth Tale. Though there were many entanglements in the story, I didn't get the feeling that the author was trying to hide shabby writing with their inclusion. Instead it felt as though they were a perfect fit for the tangled life that Miss Winter had led.

One of the other things that I really liked about this book was its focus on the pleasures of reading. Throughout the narrative, many of the characters digressed on their intense love of books and stories, and many of the story's scenes were related to literature and the written word. For a book lover like me, this was a great treat. I found the conclusion of the book to be satisfying as well. The author made sure not to leave any loose ends for the reader to speculate on, choosing instead to follow each thread of her story on to the very end.

This was incredibly well crafted story that had a great sense of plot and action. It was also extremely well written and engrossing. I am probably the last to have read this book, and I'm sorry to have waited as long as I did to get to it. For those readers who really enjoy a plot driven book with a lot of juicy details and a well developed atmosphere, I think this book is a winner. A terribly good read.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

11 comments:

Diane said...

I read this one when it first came out and also enjoyed it; great review!

Steph said...

I was really leery of this book when it came out, I have no idea why, but I wound up borrowing it from the library and really enjoyed it! I ended up really digging the gothic vibe and thought it was a great book for people who love to read. I also felt it was a good combination of plot and writing, as the story always kept me wanting to read more, but the writing itself was also more than just a rudimentary vehicle for plot. Glad you liked this one!

bermudaonion said...

A friend of mine checked this out from the library and loved it so much she bought her own copy, which she lent to me months ago. It sounds like I need to hurry up and read it!

Suko said...

This is a terrific review! I like the fact that books and reading are part of this Gothic story.

Marg said...

You've been reading some really good books lately! I loved this book when I read it a couple of years ago. This sent me off on a search for Gothic stories for quite a while after I read it.

Marie said...

Sounds fantastic! I love it when you pick something out of the pile that you've been meaning to get to forever, and then it's awesome. What a great feeling! :-)

Nymeth said...

I agree with you - some of the drama was a little too much, but overall I thought this was a very satisfying book. And the focus on books and reading was of course wonderful :D

Melissa - Shhh I'm Reading said...

This is another one that I've had on my shelves forever, but I have heard great things about. And it's another one I hope to still get to this year. THanks for the great review!

Stephanie said...

This book is one of my favorite modern gothic tales. Great review!!

Petunia said...

Your review is spot on. I loved this book when I read it 2 years ago. I think it would make a great reread. In fact, maybe I'll pick it up for the RIP Challenge.

Aarti said...

I read this one when it came out and your review makes me want to read it again! I agree that it manages, somehow, to not fall into the traps of a Gothic novel. I think because it is written in such beautiful language.

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