I first bought a copy of Diane Setterfield’s novel, The Thirteenth Tale (Orion, 2006), about an hour before I was supposed to get on a train from Oxford to the North of England. I was feeling rather homesick and wanted a good Victorian-style mystery novel to lose myself in. The book has regrettably remained in my rented room in England as I tried, rather unsuccessfully, to fit it into my full suitcase a few months later. But the narrative has remained in my memory.
This is not the most well-written or accomplished novel I have ever read, but whenever one of my friends ask me to recommend them a book to read, I suggest they give it a try. It is one of those books that is easy to enter into and absorb in moments when you want to drown out the world. It’s perfect for a day at the beach, snuggling in bed, or lying in the garden under the sun.
The novel explores a family mystery that centres on the fictional figure of the author Vida Winter, and the Gothic house, Angelfield, which she inhabits. It begins with the protagonist of the story, Margaret Lea, being invited to leave the seclusion of her father’s book store to live in the equally isolated Angelfield House and write the biography of Vida Winter. I won’t reveal anymore plot details as I don’t want to spoil the mystery for anyone.
This is a novel that quite lovingly wears its influences on its sleeves: it deliberately draws from previous authors such as the Brontës, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Henry James, Arthur Conan Doyle and Daphne du Maurier. It creates an evocative sense of place and time and seems to relish in the literary traditions of detective and Gothic fiction.
But more interestingly for me, it is also an exploration of history as fiction. With its overt fixation with the process of storytelling and the impossibility of correctly narrating another person’s life, it also suggests the limitations of the narration of historical experience. I ultimately came away from this novel pondering the relationship between literary fiction and historical facts. For example, can we approach novels as forms of historical artefacts?
Despite this exploration, it is by no means a difficult book and can be appreciated purely as a fun read for those of us who like old-fashioned, thick novels.
Post by guest blogger: Hila Shachar