Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Thirteenth Tale - Dianne Setterfield

 The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel

  Rated: A++


When Margaret Lea opened the door to the past, what she confronted was her destiny.
All children mythologize their birth...

So begins the prologue of reclusive author 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.


Diane Setterfield's language is exquisite in this book.  From the first page of this novel I was sold.  I have read many reviews of this novel where the author was dreading the read (although all of them agreed it was worth the read).  I was even more surprised when some reviewers had said that the book was only a pretty good read, or that they found the narrator boring.  Well of course in comparison to Vida's story, the narrator is boring!  Margaret is used as our link to reality - she could be any one of the readers, whereas Vida's story is as dark and mysterious as any tale you would find in a gothic novel.  Again, I am stuck for words in describing my favourite novel.  If I had to pick one book that I would call my favourite novel of all time (although it would really be impossible for me to pick ONE book!), this novel is probably the closest I could choose.  I found the story original - you would never expect what happens in this novel.  The twists are almost unreal - but they stay plausible through Setterfield's expertise in prose and her control of her characters and plot. 

Anyone who thinks this is just a cute beach read would be mistaken.  The amount of color and depth this novel evokes is peerless.


A fantastic read, especially for those who love the way words roll off your tongue, surprise twist, plot and character complexity, or for any true book lover. Dianne Setterfield has given us everything that makes a perfect novel: beautiful prose, a complex yet plausible plot, and excellent character depth.


Book lovers.  Lovers of gothic mystery and prose.  Lovers of the unexpected and beautiful.  I could not recommend this book more.

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