The Thirteenth Tale



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

21 comments:

Jen@opal Never Shouts said...

I always love adding books to my list:) Thanks!

Whatever Dee-Dee wants said...

I couldn't put this book down. It's a fun little mystery.

Dancing Branflake said...

I always see this book in the buy two get one free at Barnes and Nobles but for some reason I always hesitate. Knowing it's not the best book ever but still entertaining makes me definitely want to go back and buy it.

Erzulimojo said...

Have you read Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger? Another great spooky old house story with a very interesting tension in the first person narrator . . . couldn't put it down.

Leslie said...

agreed! a great read, we read it in October for our book club last year. kinda spooky, it fit the month well!

Joanna said...

I really enjoyed this book. I'm a sucker for gothic tales.

hila said...

Thanks everyone :)

Erzulimojo: yes, I have read it - I really enjoyed it too, although it wasn't treated very kindly by some critics!

Maryellen said...

I happened to run across it on audible.com and, after a bit of a slow start, really enjoyed the tale. You are right, though, in pointing out that it should be read or listened to simply for the sheer pleasure of a good tale, not b/c it's a runaway best seller. The audio version was very well done.

Cindy said...

I definitely agree this was a good read and also believe the lines of literary fiction and historical artifacts are often blurred.

shoutingforha said...

My book club read The Thirteenth Tale last year. While I do agree that it's not the best book I've ever read, the story is beautifully written and I thoroughly enjoyed all the twists and turns.

Michelle said...

Interesting! I have this book, and started reading it a few years ago, but put it down, I got bored. BUT, I might give it another go.

myletterstoemily said...

that's exactly how i would have described
the book . . .not perfectly written but
completely engaging.

i recommend it just like that.

Cat said...

I agree with you on this one and I loved reading it! x

M and E said...

My sister keeps recommending it to me. After reading the list of influences--all of whom I love!--I'll have to give it whirl!

hila said...

I really enjoyed reading all your comments on this book, thanks!

bronwyn said...

Hi Hila! I actually just picked this book up the other day but have not started it yet. Good to know it is recomended. ;)

hila said...

good timing! I hope you enjoy it :)

Juno Harpoon said...

A fun & mysterious read. Now I'm interested in the Sarah Waters book mentioned previously. Love your Blog :)

hila said...

thank you :)

Martini said...

I loved this book. I read it a few years ago during gardening season. I would take my ipod with me and weed or transplant plants. And of course, there was a surprise ending.

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