By Diane Setterfield
As a reader...
After reading the first chapter of The Thirteenth Tale, I thought the novel was going to be about the power of words, the way we tell stories rather than the "truth," and why we, as humans, feel the need to lie - not only to ourselves, but to our loved ones as well as the general public. Diane Setterfield's first novel was about all of that, but this mystery novel was also about so much more.
Celebrated English author Vida Winter is dying. The wolf is waiting for her, lurking in the corners of rooms, and before he comes to claim her, she wants to tell the truth about her life. All of the journalists who have tried to discover the truth about her early life have failed; Vida knew how to draw them away from the truth by telling a story instead.
Vida chooses Margaret Lea, an amateur bibliographer, to listen to and write her story. But Margaret has her own demons to deal with as well. At an early age, she discovered that she was born a twin. Since the day of her birth - and her sister's death - her mother withdrew from life, and Margaret & her father learned to tiptoe around anything that might upset her.
While Margaret's story is important, it is Vida's story, of her own twin sister, of her unusual childhood in the Gothic Angelfield mansion, that draws readers in. Vida's story is full of ghosts, an eccentric family, an overzealous governess, an introverted gardener, and two twin girls - Adeline & Emmeline - that are eternally bound to one another. Setterfield masterfully intertwines clues that lead to the story's twist - at once shocking but also completely believable.
The story of The Thirteenth Tale shows that the way we hear truth depends on what we expect, what we know, what we want to hear. The telling of truth is clearly no easy matter. And it is these very issues that make this story such a wonderful mystery.
As a writer...
I loved that this book took place in libraries and bookstores, and was, partially, about the nature of telling stories. This book is perfect for any writer/book-lover.
Yet, the novel is also a mystery, one that is deftly told, with clues about Vida's early life seamlessly intertwined with the telling of Vida's - and Margaret's - story. Chronology matters, as Vida touts to Margaret before beginning the tale of her beginnings, but so does creating expectation in the reader.
Early on, as readers, we learn there is a fire at Angelfield, one that caused Vida to change her name and begin a totally different life. The fire is an ending, but it is also a beginning. It encourages the reader to wonder about the events that led to the fire, who started it, what was it's purpose or whether it was an accident, etc.
The back and forth, between past and present, makes me think of my novel, and whether the plot can be driven less by chronology and more by certain themes and character motivations. There's always been a hint of mystery in my novel, along with jumping back and forth between 1792-3 & 2005, but Setterfield's wonderful way of hinting at things that seem to have no importance at the time was stunning, and I hope that I can achieve those subtleties that contribute to my own tale about the past.