The Thirteenth Tale
by Diane Setterfield
5 stars - captivating
ALR Green - minor cat character who wanders about and gets patted
How long did I sit on the stairs after reading the letter? I don't know. For I was spellbound. There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.
Margaret Lea lives a quiet life surrounded by books, surrounded by words. Her days are spent inside her father's bookshop where she and her father wile away the hours reading every sort of book available. She even has "reading time" set aside each night when, for hours, she will lose herself in the pages of a tale. Yeah, I liked Margaret from the start.
Here and there, Margaret's father acquires old journals of people long dead and Margaret dabbles in biography by writing short essays on the lives of those whose words are available to her. It is through these writings that the great author, Vida Winters, is made aware of Margaret's existence.
Miss Winters writes to Margaret, inviting her to listen to the tale she has to tell, her life's story. Now Miss Winters is known for spinning stories about her life and every prior "biographical" sketch has had a completely different life described.
All children mythologize their birth. It is a universal trait. You want to know someone? Heart, mind, and soul? Ask him to tell you about when he was born. What you get won't be the truth; it will be a story. And nothing is more telling than a story.
The Thirteenth Tale is a rich, wonderfully crafted exploration of Miss Winters life. Part Gothic mystery, part tragedy, all told with a prose that is absolutely enthralling. Of course all the basic elements are present; decaying mansion, madness, passion. From the dust cover "It is a tale of Gothic strangeness featuring the Angelfield family, including the beautiful and willful Isabelle, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline, a ghost, a governess, a topiary garden, and a devastating fire."
Seriously. A topiary garden. You just know that foretells trouble.
In the center of it all is Margaret, the biographer. The descriptions of Margaret's love affair with books was as compelling to me as the central story. The writing is rich, the story complex, yet it dances successfully around the edge of the cliff of overwrought without ever plunging over.
Had I the leisure, I believe I would have read The Thirteenth Tale in a single, indulgent sitting.
As a postscript, at one point, Margaret remarks on the folly of starting one book too quickly after the last one. I'm guilty of that. Turning the last page of a book and immediately opening to the first page of the next. It creates a dizzying effect as your brain continues to churn over one story, half expecting the characters to appear in the pages you are currently reading, regardless of how incongruous that might be. Does that ever happen to you?