Book Review (fiction): The Thirteenth Tale

Book review of The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.

I don’t read enough fiction these days. Between the kids, work, this site, knitting projects for Christmas, and 8 million other things, I pretty much only have time for non-fiction, with some memoir thrown in for fun. So I was a little hesitant when the MotherTalk people asked if I wanted to review The Thirteenth Tale. It’s 400 pages, and I doubted I’d get very far in.

Well, I’m not quite to the end yet (which is good, so I don’t reveal the ending inadvertently), but the book really sucked me in, almost from the beginning. It’s good that I had you all contributing holiday ideas this week, because I was spending too much time reading this book. And my current knitting project is just lying there while I read.

It’s written from the point of view of Margaret, a British used-book-seller and reader who has written a small biography of two long-dead brothers. One day she receives a letter from England’s greatest living author of fiction, Vida Winters, whose books Margaret has never read. Winters has given false stories of her background and history to reporters throughout her career, and no one knows anything about her. But she claims that she wants to "tell the truth" and that she wants to tell it to Margaret. Winters summons Margaret to her house on the moors the next week.

So Margaret goes to the house. She and Winters have a little showdown, in which the pivotal event of the author’s life, and what led her to change her name and begin writing, is revealed. Partially. We know some of the end, but not exactly, and we don’t know how it all happened. So the rest of the book reels out the story.

If you’ve ever read and loved a Barbara Vine mystery, you will enjoy this book. Knowing the outcome of the story, but not how it transpired, allows for suspense but a more thorough, richly-layered storytelling pace. And the theme of the book is storytelling. Winters’ position is that story reveals more truth than truth itself. And that’s an interesting idea to consider.

Warning: One of a pair of twins has died in infancy as the background of the story (it’s revealed in the first chapter of the book, so no spoiler), so beware if that’s a sensitive topic for you.

Also, it’s billed as a "ghost story," and I don’t really get that. To me it was more of an eerie mystery, and a great book for reading while drinking cocoa or tea while it’s snowing or raining outside and someone else is entertaining your kids. You won’t be scared, but you will be sucked into wanting to find out what happened.

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