The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

17Oct06

Synopsis:
When a bookish woman is contracted to write the biography of a famous author known to lie about herself, she discovers shocking truths that lead her to reconcile with her own tragic past.

Review:
Steeped in the Brontes, DuMaurier, Wilkie Collins, and The Turn of the Screw, this book is at once a throwback to the 19th century and a thoroughly modern reinvention of the gothic story. Setterfield lovingly lifts generic tropes from these classic tales while weaving a story that is utterly hypnotizing and deeply human.

At heart, this is a book about a fictional famous author, and Setterfield evokes a sense of yearning for these nonexistent works. I found myself wishing I could go to the library and dive into Miss Winter’s reportedly vast oeuvre, imagining that she’d be a British version of Shirley Jackson, or a slightly domesticated Patricia Highsmith. Setterfield sustains this tension without letting it overwhelm the book, and delivers a payoff that is surprising and satisfying.

Above all, this is a book suffused with the distinct pleasures of reading. I was won completely on page 32. I read this passage and thought, “Oh, she knows!”

Of course, one always hopes for something special when one reads an author one hasn’t read before, and Miss Winter’s books gave me the same thrill I had when I discovered the Landier diaries, for instance. But it was more than that. I have always been a reader; I have read at every stage of my life, and there has never been a time when reading was not my greatest joy. And yet I cannot pretend that the reading I have done in my adult years matches in its impact on my sould the reading I did as a child. I still believe in stories. I still forget myself when I am in the middle of a good book. Yet it is not the same. Books are, for me, it must be said, the most important thing; what I cannot forget is that there was a time when they were at once more banal and more essential than that. When I was a child, books were everything. And so there is in me, always, a nostalgic yearning for the lost pleasure of books. It is not a yearning that one ever expects to be fulfilled. And during this time, these days when I read all day and half the night, when I slept under a counterpane strewn with books, when my sleep was black and dreamless and passed in a flash and I woke to read again–the lost joys of reading returned to me. Miss Winter restored to me the virginal qualities of the novice reader, and then with her stories she ravished me.

I know what she means. Nothing will ever be for me what it was to read Rebecca when I was a lonely middle-schooler, reading it over and over because I needed to know that being alone was something that could be borne. If Mrs. de Winter could survive Manderley, then I could survive seventh grade.

Another such book was Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. I still have my copy that I read to death in elementary school, missing front and back cover and most of the spine, and when I pick it up I can’t read it properly, because the words knit the stories into my head. The most haunting part for me was her transition from the Greeks and Romans to the Norse. With a few simple sentence she conjured for me the reality of mortality, something that I knew that I didn’t want to know, but couldn’t stay away. My affinity for this book took me to the point of hiding it from myself. I was so enraptured by the stories that I wondered in earnest if I was hurting Jesus’s feelings by reading them, and so I put them away.

Tom Robbins once said that all smokers are Prometheus, and I say that all readers are Pandora. I think Setterfield would agree with me, and I’m pleased to let her know that she might not have given me Vida Winter’s books, but she gave me what Margaret Lea found in them–a read that stopped time.

The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel

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One Response to “The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield”

  1. Ohhh, I know what you–and she–mean, too. I think I’m gonna have to find this book. It probably never would have showed up on my radar screen if not for your blog, so thanks!


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