Throwback Thursday: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield


Throwback Thursday is a weekly meme created by Renee at It’s Book Talk.  It’s designed as an opportunity to share old favourites as well as books that we’ve finally got around to reading that were published over a year ago.

Today I’m reviewing The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.  Published to critical acclaim in 2006 and described as ‘a love letter to reading’, The Thirteenth Tale was Diane’s first novel.  It spent three weeks at number one in The New York Times hardback fiction list.

The Thirteenth TaleAbout the Book

All children mythologize their birth… So begins the prologue of reclusive author Vida Winter’s collection of stories, which are as famous for the mystery of the missing thirteenth tale as they are for the delight and enchantment of the twelve that do exist.

The enigmatic Winter has spent six decades creating various outlandish life histories for herself – all of them inventions that have brought her fame and fortune but have kept her violent and tragic past a secret. Now old and ailing, she at last wants to tell the truth about her extraordinary life. She summons biographer Margaret Lea, a young woman for whom the secret of her own birth, hidden by those who loved her most, remains an ever-present pain. Struck by a curious parallel between Miss Winter’s story and her own, Margaret takes on the commission.

As Vida disinters the life she meant to bury for good, Margaret is mesmerized. It is a tale of gothic strangeness featuring the Angelfield family, including the beautiful and wilful Isabelle, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline, a ghost, a governess, a topiary garden and a devastating fire.

Margaret succumbs to the power of Vida’s storytelling but remains suspicious of the author’s sincerity. She demands the truth from Vida, and together they confront the ghosts that have haunted them while becoming, finally, transformed by the truth themselves.

Format: ebook (418 pp.)    Publisher: Orion
Published: 8th December 2011 [September 2006] Genre: Historical Fiction

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Find The Thirteenth Tale on Goodreads

My Review

I was part way through The Thirteenth Tale when I was lucky enough to hear Diane Setterfield speak at this year’s Henley Literary Festival about her approach to writing and, in particular, about her forthcoming book, Once Upon A River. You can read my full review of the event here.  (Oh, and look out for my review of Once Upon A River as part of the blog tour starting in December.)

I was struck by Diane’s thoughts on storytelling as an important theme in her books.  Admitting she’d always had an interest – and not just a professional interest – in storytelling, Diane observed that we all organise information, gossip, and so on into stories about ourselves.  Diane described humans as intrinsically ‘storytelling animals’.  To quote from The Thirteenth Tale, “Everybody has a story.”

The book epitomises that emphasis on storytelling because, not only is its main character, Vida Winter, an author but she is a notably reclusive one who has carefully guarded the true facts of her life, spreading misinformation in its place.  Furthermore, the plot centres on the mystery of a ‘missing’ thirteenth tale from her most famous collection of stories.  What could be more enticing than the prospect of tracking down and reading a missing story?

Having heard Diane’s thoughts made me return to the book with renewed interest and with an increased awareness of the way in which storytelling permeates the book.  Many of the characters are in search of or trying to make sense of the story of their life; others are facing up to the need to finally reveal it.  In some cases, uncovering the true nature of their story does not bring them the clarity or satisfaction they hoped for.  As Aurelius Love observes, “Perhaps it’s better not to have a story at all, rather than have one that keep changing.  I have spent my whole life chasing after my story, and never quite catching it.”

There is also a sense in the book of the story of Vida’s life having an existence of its own; that it is fighting to make itself heard.  At one point she comments: “Silence is not a natural environment for stories.  They need words.  Without them they grow pale, sicken and die.”

I found The Thirteenth Tale an engrossing read; full of atmosphere and with a series of intriguing mysteries at its heart helped by some fine writing. ‘From the day I was born grief was always present.  It settled like dust upon the household.  It covered everything; it invaded us with every breath we took.  It shrouded us in our own separate mysteries.’  The settings have a real sense of the Gothic.  I’m now excited to start reading Once Upon A River very shortly.

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In three words: Suspenseful, Gothic, mystery

Try something similar…The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton (read my spoiler free review here)

Diane SetterfieldAbout the Author

Diane Setterfield’s bestselling novel, The Thirteenth Tale (2006) was published in 38 countries worldwide and has sold more than three million copies. Her second novel, Bellman & Black (2013) was a genre-defying tale of rooks and Victorian retail.  January 2019 sees the publication of her new title, Once Upon a River, which has been called ‘bewitching’ and ‘enchanting’.

Born in Englefield, Berkshire in 1964, Diane spent most of her childhood in the nearby village of Theale.  Diane studied French Literature at the University of Bristol.  She taught English at the Institut Universitaire de Technologie and the Ecole nationale supérieure de Chimie, both in Mulhouse, France, and later lectured in French at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK. She left academia in the late 1990s to pursue writing.  Diane now lives in Oxford. When not writing she reads widely, and when not actually reading she is usually talking or thinking about reading.

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