Aficionados of gothic tales will find The Thirteenth Tale incredibly satisfying. Diane Setterfield channels Daphne du Maurier and other classic novelists of the genre to create a tale that should stand as a new classic.
A young woman who has grown up helping her father in his used book shop is summoned by a famous writer to write her memoirs. Vida Winter has told hundreds of versions of her “life story” to reporters over the years, and none are true. Now the rapidly declining writer assures Margaret she will tell the truth, for it is the only story she has left.
“Tell me, do you believe in ghosts?” she asks Margaret. For her story is a ghost story, she says. And then begins her eerie tale.
Miss Winter’s story is indeed strange, mysterious. Mists of questions somehow hover around the edges as she relates it, making it hard to see the lines. A brother and sister are born nine years apart in an old manor. The mother dies, the father is reclusive; the siblings are somehow odd. Their disturbing behavior sets the tone for the book, guides its very plot strands. Twins born carry on the oddness, reclusiveness, and even violence.
Miss Winter grew up in this decaying manor, set apart from the rest of the small community, and she unravels bits of the story a portion at a time, day to day, for Margaret.
Meanwhile, Margaret has her own story, her own threads and mists obscuring details that reveal themselves. The two women face their demons together as their stories play out.
Good suspense novels hold the reader’s attention with an iron grip, parceling out crucial details like crumbs along a trail. The Thirteenth Tale does so uncannily well. It beckons … and — gasp! — it won’t set the reader free until the very last stunning revelation. Margaret doesn’t see the meaning of some of the smallest clues until near the end of Miss Winter’s whole story, and neither do we. A second reading then shows they were there all along in the mist, hovering just along the edges.
The Thirteenth Tale is absolutely not to be missed.
Rated: Moderate. There is only one occurrence of language. But there is one sensual scene that is somewhat detailed and disturbing, though fairly brief. The disturbing behaviors, both sexual and violent, of the main characters in the story are mostly along the edges, but they are referred to often enough to rank the book a moderate for its themes.