The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield: A review

I know that I must have heard and read of this book when it came out in 2006, but when the facilitator at my local book club suggested it for reading in January, I did not remember it or the author. The book made quite a splash when it came out. It was Setterfield's first (and, apparently, so far only) novel. It garnered a good bit of praise from critics and was nominated for some literary prizes, so, after having it brought to my attention again, I looked forward to reading it.

It started promisingly enough. Setterfield does have a talent for stringing words together and creating an atmosphere, and atmosphere is what this Gothic tale is all about. It has been compared to Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Woman in White and other books of that ilk. Indeed, The Thirteenth Tale itself refers continually throughout to Jane Eyre and the plot hangs on that reference. Personally, it reminded me of Daphne du Maurier, one of my reading passions when I was a teenager. I loved her books, My Cousin Rachel, Rebecca, and Jamaica Inn, etc., and this book had something of that same feel to it. A sense of forboding and dread.

The story begins with Margaret Lea, a thirtyish woman who assists her father in his antiquarian bookshop, receiving a letter from a famous English author who wants Margaret to write her biography. Margaret has written a few essays but nothing like this. She begins to research the life of the writer, Vida Winter, and finds that there are as many different versions of it as there are journalists who have written about her, and that is quite a few.

Vida Winter is dying so time is of the essence. Margaret has never read her works and she begins by reading something called "Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation." She is mesmerized, but, as she nears the end, she realizes that there are not thirteen tales, there are only twelve. She is intrigued and agrees to travel to Winter's home and meet with her and act as her biographer, hoping all the time to learn what that thirteenth tale is.

The writer promises to tell Margaret the truth, unlike the stories she had spun for all those journalists, and Margaret quickly finds herself deeply immersed in the dark tale of the woman's life. It is a tale of abuse, ghosts, incest, even stranger family secrets, murder, and the burnt-out estate of Angelfield which was her childhood home. Was ever a home more inaccurately named!  

It is a strange and troubling story, but, as Winter tells it, Margaret begins to see parallels between the writer's life and her own. In order to write this story and in order to free herself from her own sad childhood, she will have to confront her own ghosts as well as Winter's.

I like a good Gothic tale as much as the next person (Exhibit: Daphne du Maurier) and I enjoyed this one up to a certain point, probably about two-thirds of the way through. Then, it all sort of fell apart for me. It became repetitious and a bit tedious. There was, for example, a rather long section which reproduced a diary from a governess at Angelfield. It added nothing to the story, told us nothing that we didn't already know. 

Moreover, there were a couple of plot twists at the end that seemed like the author was really straining to make our jaws drop. In my case, they just made me sigh. They seemed dishonest. Red herrings are one thing, fair game in the mystery trade, but the author really did not play fair with her readers on these plot twists and that's a no-no. The rules of mystery writing require that you leave honest clues. If they were anywhere to be found, I didn't see them.

And then there is the ghost thing. Always an iffy matter. The rational mind requires that ghosts be explained, unless the whole thing is a romp that one is not supposed to take seriously. But, again, I was just annoyed by Setterfield's "ghosts." 

As I noted earlier, Setterfield does have a talent for stringing words together, but I think her book could have benefited from some judicious editing, maybe removing some of those repetitious words and tightening up the plot.  It will be interesting to see what she writes next, if indeed she plans to write another book.


  1. Intriguing, daring and even downright heart-pounding at times, The Thirteenth Tale might well give you nightmares at the end, but they'll be the best- and most original- nightmares you've ever had.


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