The Thirteenth Tale

There is a paragraph in Diane Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, where a character describes the magic of stories and their long standing disagreement with the truth “What succour, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story?… When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don’t expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid. What you need are the plump comforts of a story” she writes in a letter. It makes you take a deep, appreciative breath; the respect for the author increases a notch and the apprehension that is felt before opening a new novel fades. You settle in more comfortably on the couch as now you know that the author speaks in a language you can understand.
The novel revolves around two primary characters, a biographer and an author, and the intermingling of their personal stories. A reclusive bestselling author who goes by the name of Vida Winter offers to tell her story to a virtually unknown biographer, Margaret Lea, who is surprised and reluctant as she herself is struggling with her secrets and identity. As Ms. Winter has fashioned several stories about herself throughout her career to feed to the press, there is relentless interest surrounding her beginnings as nobody knows which of the stories is are really true.

Another mystery is that of the book written by her called ‘Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation’ which contained only twelve tales, the last of which was missing. To satisfy her curiosity about the Thirteenth Tale, Margaret accepts Vida Winter’s offer and as her past unfolds, Margaret finds herself struggling with her present. Most of the secondary characters are a part of Ms. Winter’s past and are introduced as her story moves along. Some Margaret meets while she goes to investigate further into the author’s past, all of whom are in some way connected to her.

The book has definite dark, even gothic shades. Almost every character has a slightly twisted side, which the author has enjoyed exploring. No one in the book is flawless; the heroines are deceptive and secretive and no one ever wins. Yet there is strange beauty in Setterfield’s language, even as she describes the macabre (which she does often). I was kept engaged throughout, even when I was dreading the next secret that the author was about to reveal. Another interesting aspect of the book is that you feel like you are watching the proceedings from behind a haze, perhaps because the story moves so fast and shifts gears from the past to the present so easily.

The climax does not disappoint, although I did feel that Setterfield did not know what to do with Ms. Winter’s secrets once they were all out. The end seems unsure and even though it’s not open, the author has more or less left the interpretations and judgements for the reader to make. I also could have liked knowing some of the characters better, like the unexpected friend Margaret makes when she visits Ms. Winter’s old house who is one of the better people in the book. His character shades could have been explored more thoroughly as he has a rather strong connection to the plot.

However, I strongly recommend the book because of the way Setterfield handles the complex plot and equally complex personalities. The language is fluid and the words draw you in, making sure that the book is page-turning till the very end. The final revelation of the mysterious thirteenth tale is wonderfully written and ironically made me want to read the preceding twelve tales.

If you enjoy a good story and do not mind its darker shades, then this is a book you need to add to your collection.

Prerna Vohra

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