I finished The Thirteenth Tale in three days between work, life, etc. I could easily have just sat and read it through in a day, however, if time had allowed.
Firstly, this may not be everyone’s cuppa tea. Not only does the book harken back to 19th-century Gothic tradition, but it is also filled with literary allusions as Setterfield was a literary academic before she settled into a full-time writing life. For me, it is the perfect sort of book that continues to reverberate in my head long after I’ve finished it. I am also really looking forward to the UK TV Series that is due out at the end of 2013 with Vanessa Redgrave and Olivia Colman as the main characters – an opportunity to relive. Redgrave is, of course, going to be perfect for her part–I visualized her even before I knew of the TV series.
Both our main protagonists–Margaret Lea, the narrator and would-be biographer, and Vida Winter, the acclaimed author and would-be biographer subject–are lifelong bibliophiles. Both have a particular affinity towards twins for their separate reasons, which I will not spoil for you. So, naturally, these things bring them together. They revisit Vida Winter’s story through long sessions of telling and writing/researching, while slowly unraveling Margaret Lea’s story at the same time. In between, we get tantalizing glimpses of the old Gothic homestead, which is very much like a living character itself.
The key supporting characters in the book are just as important to the story as the main ones–each one’s story, after all, is a subplot in another’s–inextricably linked and essential to moving the entire story along. In fact, “The Thirteenth Tale”, which is also the story within the story, could very well have been any of these subplots further expanded–and it almost is, as you will see.
There is a lot to like about this book. Setterfield herself is an avid reader and lover of 19th-century fiction. Through her characters, she expresses her love for books and stories beautifully. Also, “Reading can be dangerous”, she says, in the first few pages. And, as you read, you get a sense of what she really means by that.
I enjoyed, particularly, Setterfield’s lush yet measured use of language and words to weave haunting descriptions of the physical world around key scenes. In many ways, her writing is not unlike the topiary art in the gardens she describes often in the book – structured, sculpted and functional yet living, expressive and imaginative.
The psychological aspects of twin dynamics are explored deeply but with 19th-century sensibilities as they are through the eyes of the characters. Yet, Setterfield manages to convey a lot more subtext–think of how Emily Brontë did that with Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights. The family outsider is another recurring theme–think of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë–and manifests through multiple characters at different times. I’ll leave it there to avoid spoiling the fun for those who have yet to read the book.
Some critics have complained about how the ending is all about Setterfield trying to neatly tie up all ends. This is very true and necessary to stay true to the Gothic 19th-century tradition. It did not trouble me too much as I was too vested in all the characters and wanted to know how things ended with each–at least as far as all the existing subplots were concerned. That said, I suppose it did make the ending feel rather rushed. Or, rather, the switch from a slower-paced narration throughout the rest of the book into a relatively quicker catalog of events in the ending was a rather tricky switch and not an entirely smooth one.
One other point to make: Yorkshire, as a place, comes to life in the book as another character. This is, again, in keeping with the Gothic tradition, of course, but I imagine it must have been difficult to create a 20th-21st century Yorkshire that did not pay homage to the one created and, really, entirely owned by the Brontës.
All that said, I enjoyed the book immensely and recommend it as an extremely well-told, good old-fashioned yarn. And, here’s one of my favorite bibliophile quotes from the book (and there are several such):
I never read without making sure I’m in a secure position. I have been like this ever since the age of seven when, sitting on a high wall and reading The Water Babies, I was so seduced by the descriptions of underwater life that I unconsciously relaxed my muscles. Instead of being held buoyant by the water that so vividly surrounded me in my mind, I plummeted to the ground and knocked myself out. I can still feel the scar under my fringe now. Reading can be dangerous.