Published by Atria Books on September 12th 2006
Genres: Adult, Contemporary, Mystery
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Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise — she doesn’t know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter’s dozens of novels.
Late one night while pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.
As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter’s account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story.
Both women will have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets... and the ghosts that haunt them still.
It was inevitable, I suppose. I’ve had a rather good run of stories lately, but I knew that it wouldn’t last forever. I was eventually going to write a review that wasn’t all gushing praise and happy adjectives.
And here I am. I must say that I wasn’t expecting it to happen so soon. I really thought that The Thirteenth Tale was going to be excellent, because it has so many interesting storytelling ideas stuffed into its pages. Setterfield fills her novel with ghosts, decrepit mansions, mysterious fires, twins, and more. Throw in the fact that this is a book that is essentially about books (similar to Inkheart) and you would think that I had a guaranteed winner on my hands.
Not so, unfortunately.
This isn’t a very hefty read. Setterfield’s writing flows with an easily accessible quality, and the pages fly by as a result. Yet it felt far too long. By the time that I finished the first half of the book, I was impatient for it to end, and the final chapters were a real chore to read.
The problem, I think, is that I never felt any sort of connection with the characters or their stories. That isn’t to say that the plot isn’t interesting. It is. The events that unfold do manage to keep you invested, the mystery that is central to the novel filled with plenty of compelling puzzles and enticing twists. Yet the whole affair feels curiously distant. It’s as though the reader, instead of becoming a part of the world that the author has created, is never anything more than an observer behind a pane of glass. You are very much aware, at all times, that what you are reading is a piece of fiction, and this knowledge prevents you from seeing beyond the paper and ink.
I attribute this primarily to the fact that the vast majority of the novel is structured as a story within a story, with Margaret relaying to the reader the tale that Miss Winter is having her write. This format, consequently, makes both of the primary narrations, despite being in first person, feel too removed to have any real emotional impact. Winter’s account, being nestled within another, is often interrupted by Margaret’s, and so the reader has no real chance to lose his or herself in it. I hate to repeat myself, but I feel it appropriate to compare this situation once more to the role of a spectator who is consciously detached from what is occurring. Margaret’s tale, meanwhile, is given so little time in between Winter’s that it never really takes on a life of its own. As a consequence, it feels tacked on and almost unnecessary, intruding upon the more important events. Considering that this is the main character that I am referring to, this is certainly an issue.
Margaret in general is a hard protagonist to connect with. Her role as biographer for Winter, and her aforementioned lack of a substantial storyline, makes her little more than a transparent and obvious setup that Setterfield uses as an excuse to explore Winter’s character to a greater degree. And while I appreciate her love of literature and reading (the sections in which she explores and explains this passion are the most enjoyable of the bunch), she too often comes across as pretentious and overdramatic. She repeatedly mentions the projects and hobbies that she undertakes, and mulls over childhood tragedies and losses. Neither of these tendencies would be an issue if they weren’t the only things that substantially define her, and the fact that they are gives her the qualities of a soap opera character as a result. She has too many unique characteristics, and she spends too much time mourning her past. This is an odd thing to say, but she is, quite frankly, too interesting.
Other characters are less frustrating, but they not given enough attention or detail to really become anything more than curiosities. The only other primary player here, Miss Winter, is developed through her narration-within-a-narration, which suffers from not only emotional distance, but from a last-minute plot twist that completely subverts almost everything that the reader has learned about the woman up until that point. What’s left afterwards is the plain fact that you know very little of her character, and the author consequently introduces last-minute details in an attempt to compensate for this. Yet it only feels forced and unsatisfying.
It’s a shame, because the story that Setterfield tells here is really quite intriguing. The atmosphere is one of gloom and dust, of secrets and the macabre. The sudden reveals are both deliciously creepy and, for the most part, satisfying. The problem comes in the final act of the novel, when the author decides to explain everything all at once through several lengthy monologues. It’s an unfair and lazy way out – Setterfield spends most of the novel introducing and furthering these mysteries, but solves them in a way that feels rushed and unnatural. It’s the equivalent of the villain explaining the entirety of his dastardly scheme to the hero in one breath. As someone who finished the book solely to find out how everything was explained, I felt cheated. Rather than owing to a lack of resolution, however, my impression of fraud stems from the fact that there was simply too much of it.
On a final note: the writing. To be honest, I was expecting more. It’s clear that Setterfield was striving for a lush, haunting style of prose that would complement her story’s Victorian mood, but her words comes across as incomplete and only partially realized. There are some good portions, but others are too simplistic and too repetitive, which becomes annoying very quickly.
To bring this review to a close, I will say this: The Thirteenth Tale is not a bad book. Unfortunately, neither is it a great one. It is a novel that contains a great concept and some wonderful ideas, but does little with them. If the synopsis interests you, I recommend giving it a try. It may not earn a spot on your list of favorite reads (though it appears to be loved by many, so maybe it’s just mine that it failed to make), but it’s certainly worth a brief visit, forgettable though it may be.