Diane Setterfield’s “The Thirteenth Tale” might not sound all that interesting on the surface — a Gothic drama that wasn’t even written in the Gothic era — but, if given a chance, it might surprise readers.
“The Thirteenth Tale” is a suspenseful jaunt that I spent every spare moment of my time reading until it was finished. The story, in which a famous and aging author, Vida Winter, asks bookish biographer Margaret Lea to record the story of her life, keeps interest with rich images of the English moors where the story takes place, as well as with characters so vivid you can hear their voices in your head. Though those who dislike Gothic literature probably won’t go for the dark, stormy images and constant references to “Jane Eyre,” those who love the writing style (or can even just tolerate it like me) should give “The Thirteenth Tale” a try.
The story revolves around Winter’s tumultuous childhood in which she and her twin sister essentially raise themselves, creating their own twin language and never spending any time apart. But with each tale of the girls’ incessant trouble-making, less and less seems to add up. The reader is left with nagging questions about the house’s ghosts, governesses and the family itself until a massive plot twist explains it all.
I had to stop and re-read the page on which it was all revealed. I didn’t see it coming at all and first re-read it just to comprehend it, then again to marvel at how brilliantly Setterfield sets it all up. If nothing else, this genius turn of events made me love the novel, so much so that I immediately gave it to a friend, for someone to share my awe with.
But the incredible twist is not the only great thing about this book. Not only does Setterfield create a suspenseful mystery, but she also creates a mesmerizing idea of what it means to be complete.
Throughout the story, the reader meets more than one pair of twins (who are not always together) and shows us how damaging it can be to be separated from a part of yourself. Setterfield uses the idea of twins in a million ways: to illustrate the good and bad in all people, as a metaphor for self-identity, as well as a representation of the past. The twins in this story are the kind of characters that stick in your brain long after you’ve finished reading.
“The Thirteenth Tale” is thrilling without being over-the-top, interesting while never feeling too complex and mysterious without becoming an episode of Scooby-Doo. You’re left with all your questions answered but some new ones formed by the end.
Setterfield weaves together something so hypnotizing that it would make a Brontë proud.