Book Review: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

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Book Review—The grip of a story is a powerful thing, a compulsion that at once pleases and binds the reader as she meets the characters whose lives she must follow until their destinies are revealed and their problems resolved. The grip of a story skillfully told is another thing altogether, when not just curiosity compels the reader, but also compassion. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is one such gripping, skillfully-told story.

It is a story set in a lonely English countryside of indeterminate time, populated by characters that would be very comfortable in a Bronte or Dickensian novel. Indeed, Ms. Setterfield, a first-time published author, has a style very reminiscent of those classic writers. It grips because the characters are mysterious yet powerfully motivated, the plot is masterfully constructed, and the seeming contrast between the desolateness of the setting and the complexity of the story so intriguing.

The book centers primarily around the lives of Vida Winters, a prolifically-published but enigmatic author, and Margaret Lea, an amateur and unknown biographer to whom Ms. Winters finally reveals her life story, the purported "Thirteenth Tale." This tale is woven as various supporting characters, primarily family members, are introduced and developed, and while one is intrigued by their lives, one wonders what they have to do with Ms. Winters. They are characters with rudimentary, strange personalities and hints of deep, very dark pasts. They all contribute to the story equally, one thinks until the end, when it is revealed that the story in fact revolves entirely around a critical, unexpected few. Ms. Lea narrates the overarching story, the one that includes her meager, mysterious life, which is similar in a critical way that neither she nor Ms. Winters suspects, and it is through the discovery of that common element that Ms. Lea is revealed to the reader as both a foil and a friend of Ms. Winters.

The plot is masterfully constructed, presenting itself as a mystery right off when Ms. Winters invites Ms. Lea to her estate, and then proceeding through a series of interviews between the two, in which a horrific past that had been deftly withheld for many years is revealed. The intertwining elements, interactions between Ms. Lea and various, seemingly-unconnected people, become the subtle means by which the story is brought together. One thinks Ms. Setterfield might delight too much in the use of red herrings, until one witnesses the rapid braiding in of those people and details into one thick, powerful story. The atmosphere is very Bronte-esque, all lonely English moors, desolate estates, and conflicted people, but with enough distinct detail to make it original and convincing.

You can tell that Ms. Setterfield truly enjoys the art of storytelling; she is not just in love with words. She writes herself that "the 13th 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."

What book are you reading right now? What is your favorite genre of books to read? What was a great book that you have read recently?

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