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The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (2006)
I've had this book sitting on my shelf for over a year and finally got around to reading it. What an absolute treat this book is! I know it has been mentioned in other threads and posts but I haven't located an official review. I'm not the best book reviewer out there but I thought I'd give it a go, and anyone else who has read it please feel free to join in!

To say this is a book "about" books and the processes of reading, writing, and storytelling, is not enough. First time author Diane Setterfield creates absolute magic with her ruminations on all of the above while weaving them intricately into the plot. Like Wuthering Heights, the Thirteenth Tale has several narrators on several levels. Different plot lines are revealed slowly and deliberately in arguably the most exquisite Gothic prose we have had in the English language in close to forty (if not more) years. While it bears structural similarities to Wuthering Heights, the prose most often reminds me of Rebecca. The author numerous times alludes to Jane Eyre (and a few other gothic and romance classics) as well as The Turn of the Screw. Not only are the titles invoked but so are themes and imagery from both these novels.

Literary references aside, what we have here is a beautiful told story of abandonment, isolation and loneliness, and the nature of personal identity. Our primary heroine is Margaret Lea who narrates in first person as she goes to visit Vida Winter, England's most famous mystery novelist. Under the pretext of relating her life for Margaret's eventual biography of the novelist, Miss Winter begins telling a series of tales from her childhood growing up in a dilapidated Gothic mansion called Angelfield with a cast of beguiling yet highly dysfunctional characters. Along the way we meet several sets of twins, several disturbed children, and easily the most intelligent goveness in all of literature in the person of Hester Barrow. The final quarter of the novel begins with excerpts from Hester's long missing diary, and from there on out I was hooked. Mystery novels usually reveal their secrets quickly during the last few pages and everything falls neatly together. The revelations in The Thirteenth Tale continue to unfold over easily 30-50 pages. Even as quickly as I read this book I was aware that the clues had been planted every step of the way. Not only was I amazed at the author's cleverness in the deception, but in the BEST gothic and ghost story storytelling tradition, I was overwhelmed with sadness and heartbreak when finally learning the true nature of events.

Hardcore romance enthusiasts may not take to this novel, but I think every member among our numbers who appreciates the best of Gothic prose written with ornate and exquisite care will be enthralled with The Thirteenth Tale and immediately place it on a list of all time favorite books.
Perhaps you should consider adding it to the "Best Gothic List" - we still haven't reached 50 yet.
I've read this book and think it's excellent. It does have a love element that is short, but powerful. Brought tears to my eyes.
I have to admit that this book deeply disappointed me, although I am a lifelong devotee of the gothic theme. Some of the images have stuck with me and there's no doubt it's well written, yet I didn't enjoy it. I think I needed more sympathetic characters.
My review:

This story has a couple of layers. The first person to speak to us is Margaret Lea, aged about 35, who is invited to write the biography of the present-day best loved living author, Vida Winter. Although Margaret lives and breathes novels, manuscripts and anything written, she has read none of the fifty-six books by Vida Winter. One book stands out because at first printing it was titled "Thirteen tales of change and desperation", but contained only twelve stories. The whole world is curious to know about this missing thirteenth tale.
Margaret visits Vida Winters in her home in Yorkshire. The old lady starts telling her her story in bits and pieces, as she is slowly dying and is in a lot of pain.

From the start the reader is confronted with mysteries. There's the missing thirteenth tale, Margaret won't tell the reader about something in her past, why does Margaret's mother not love her, will Vida Winter be telling the truth and why has she been lying all the time to reporters and biographers?

The reader never learns exactly when the stories take place. It's before the age of computers and cell phones. Margaret won't even use a taperecorder for her work with Miss Winter. She makes notes and transcribes later using paper, pencils and a pencil sharpener. Which she doesn't hesitate to screw to the edge of her host's furniture... Next she removes the floor-length heavy curtains from the window across the desk where she is to work, so she can look up through the window and see her reflection in the glass. Oh no, it isn't her reflection, it's the ghost of her twin sister who died long ago and of whose existence she didn't learn until she was about ten years old... You may gather I didn't care for Margaret and her story at all, whining about this ghostly twin all the time. The actual story, told by Vida Winters, is much better. It's also about twins and although Margaret claims to understand the relationship between twins like no other, the similarities between both stories are nil.

In telling Vida's story the reader will be cheated. She wants to tell her story "Beginnings, middles and endings, all in the correct order. No cheating. No looking ahead. No questions." Margaret soon establishes Vida is not lying about the facts this time, but she is lying with the telling sequence. Nevertheless, it's an interesting story, albeit rather far-fetched sometimes. All the mysteries raised will get their more or less proper answers.

The gothic atmosphere is there in both mansions, the one where Vida grew up and the one where she is telling her story. There is no heroine in peril, though. People and places are described very good, the prose is excellent. Many references are made to the real gothics like Jane Eyre, which seems to be done more in order to enhance the gothic feeling than that it actually pertains to the story.

Again I find an author who feels the need to bash a classic gothic, in this case Henry James' The Turn of the Screw: "For the book is a rather silly story about a governess and two haunted children. I am afraid that in it Mr. James exposes the extent of his ignorance. He knows little about children and nothing at all about governesses." This is said by the governess in Vida's story, which may or may not be Ms. Setterfield's own opinion, but I think an author should refrain from making such denigrating remarks about colleagues who are much more famous than themselves.

Apart from being annoyed a lot by Margaret, who decides not to publish Vida's story!, I enjoyed my time reading the rest, so I'll give it a 7 out of 10.

I thought this story was well written and I enjoyed the liberal use of Gothic conventions and references to other novels etc but like Charybdis I didn't find any of the characters sympathetic. Whilst it's a good take on the Gothic, it does leave the lover of the romantic gothic a bit disappointed. I really wanted Margaret Lea to be more of the Jane Eyre type of character. I would have felt less let-down if the publicity around the book had been a bit less focused on the Gothic.

I'm still looking for the modern take on Jane Eyre-and no, although I enjoyed reading Rebecca-that's not i, IMNSHO. I am beginning to think I shall have to write it myself. I want to do for Charlotte Bronte what Helen Fielding did for Jane Austen.

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