Review: ‘The Thirteenth Tale’ by Diane Setterfield

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Tuesday, September 28, 2010 - Save & Share - 5 Comments

Title: The Thirteenth Tale

Author: Diane Setterfield

Published: Orion, 2007, pp. 470

Genre: Historical gothic mystery

Blurb: Angelfield House stands abandoned and forgotten.  It was once the imposing home of the March family – fascinating, manipulative Isabelle, Charlie, her brutal and dangerous brother, and the wild, untamed twins, Emmeline and Adeline.  But Angelfield House conceals a chilling secret whose impact still resonates…

Now Margaret Lea is investigating Angelfield’s past — and the mystery of the March family starts to unravel.  What has the house been hiding?  What is its connection with the enigmatic author Vida Winter?  And what is it in Margaret’s own troubled past that causes her to fall so powerfully under Angelfield’s spell?

Where, when and why: I bought this book up from a charity shop after it was chosen as a group read on Goodreads.  By the time a copy turned up in my locale British Heart Foundation shop the group read had finished, but it looked like such an interesting book that I wanted to read it anyway.  Perhaps it’s the cold weather, perhaps it’s the R.I.P. Challenge making me more aware of it, but I’ve been on a bit of a gothic fiction kick recently and this book fitted the bill rather nicely.

What I thought: This is the sort of novel that I finished and was instantly disappointed that it was the author’s debut, because I already want to read more and Diane Setterfield rather inconsiderately hasn’t written anything else yet (with the exception of some intimidating French literary criticism, which probably isn’t for me).  This book is atmospheric, intriguing and a very enjoyable read.

The Thirteenth Tale is a story within a story: dying author Vida Winter relates the story of her childhood to bookshop owner and amateur biographer Margaret Lea.  This narrative frame facilitates the build-up of mystery and suspense as the reader receives Miss Winter’s tale in fits and starts as she relates the tale to Margaret in installments for as long as her strength to withstand the pain of her illness will allow.  Miss Winter’s narrative is also fiercely chronological, resisting all temptation to look ahead to later on in her life and reveal more than she should.  Consequently, the reader finds out details as Margaret does and it just as tantalised by the snippets of information and speculation which she manages to garner elsewhere.  I also enjoyed the fact that the story refuses to be contained, but spills over into the frame narrative, Margaret’s own life and emotions connecting with those she is recording.

Miss Winter’s story is delightfully gothic, encompassing such topics as death, insanity, mental illness, incest, domestic violence and self-harm.  Emmeline and Adeline are eerie and chilling in their childish lack of remorse or morality, something which is established well by Diane Setterfield showing the twins through the eyes of various characters who try to influence them: the governess, the doctor, the housekeeper, the gardener and more.  The reader is kept firmly outside their insular, interior world and so they always appear strange and uncanny, and Diane Setterfield’s very precise use of pronouns and perspective help to accentuate this.  That their twisted family history is full of possible excuses to explain their behaviour sets them apart even more rather than offering an opportunity to sympathise with them.  Angelfield itself provides the perfect, typical decaying stately home setting, beloved of gothic novels and the setting for the frame narrative is equally atmospheric, the damp and chill of the Yorkshire Moors permeating the story.

My only slight problem with this book is Margaret, the first person narrator relating the story to the reader.  I don’t feel that her character is developed sufficiently; although the reader is supplied with numerous details with which to flesh her out, the central issue of her own missing twin and her accompanying bouts of mental instability are haphazard rather than developing consistently to a climax.  The climax comes, but out of the blue without any significant build-up.  I would have liked Margaret’s issues to feel more real for their own sake rather than as a way of tying her to Miss Winter and her story.  Nevertheless, this was a very good read and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

Where this book goes: This book is staying on my shelves along with my ever-growing collection of gothic fiction.  It may even come out again next year when the weather starts to turn cold and the days get shorter.

Tea talk: This book called for more warming smoked tea.  I’ve nearly exhausted my Russian Caravan supplies, so I might treat myself to some Lapsang Souchong this week for comparison.

Posted in Book Review • Tags: , , , , , , , Top Of Page

5 Responses to “Review: ‘The Thirteenth Tale’ by Diane Setterfield”

Comment from Stephanie
Time September 28, 2010 at 11:50 pm

I know I enjoyed this book when I read, but I am really disappointed that I remember hardly anything about it.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time September 29, 2010 at 11:54 am

That’s a shame, but I think it’s one that could stand a re-reading. In fact, I think I’d notice a lot more the second time around now I know how it ends.

Comment from Amy
Time September 29, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Great review of a great book :) I too hope that the author writes something else soon!

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time September 30, 2010 at 5:01 pm

I’m glad you enjoyed this book too. According to the source of all knowledge that is Wikipedia she was already working on her second novel when she hit the top of the bestseller lists in 2006, so hopefully there might be more fairly soon. Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

Pingback from ‘The Thirteenth Tale’ by Diane Setterfield « Decidedly Bookish
Time May 22, 2011 at 2:45 pm

[...] I thought: Firstly, I’d like to (rather lazily) direct you to Katie’s review of this book. Katie has a real gift for recreating a novel’s atmosphere, and it was this review which [...]

Write a comment