Book: The Thirteenth Tale

Title: The Thirteenth Tale
Author: Diane Setterfield
Genre: Fiction
Length: 406 pgs

Summary: Margaret Lea has a secret about her birth; a secret that haunts her to this day, and affects every decision she makes. She is the daughter of an antique book dealer, and so is his helpmate in running the bookshop that maintains their lifestyle. One day, a letter arrives for Margaret, written in an awful hand, requesting that she journey to the home of the infamous writer, Vida Winter. Miss Winter is infamous because of her past, or lack of it, for with every interview there is a new rendition, and none of them are true. There is no record of Miss Winter’s birth, her childhood…nothing to say who she was before she appeared in the literary world. Miss Winter, it seems, wants to tell the truth of her past for the first time, ever, and she has chosen Margaret for the job. After thirty (or forty, perhaps?) years of public speculation about the past of Miss Vida Winter, and the plot of the missing thirteenth tale from her book Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation (only twelve were released), Vida Winter is ready to speak the truth.

pg 4 – (I never read without making sure I am in a secure position. I have been like this ever since the age of seven when, sitting on a high wall and reading The Water Babies, I was so seduced by the descriptions of underwater life that I unconsciously relaxed my muscles. Instead of being held buoyant by the water that so vividly surrounded me in my mind, I plummeted to the ground and knocked myself out. I can still feel the scar under my fringe now. Reading can be dangerous.)

pg 5 – Some writers don’t like interviews of course. They get cross about it. “Same old questions,” they complain. Well, what do they expect? Reporters are hacks. We writers are the real thing. Just because they always ask the same questions, it doesn’t mean we have to give them the same answers, does it? I mean, making things up, it’s what we do for a living.

pg 32 – I have always been a reader; I have read at every stage of my life, and there has never been a time when reading was not my greatest joy. And yet I cannot pretend that the reading I have done in my adult years matches in its impact on my soul the reading I did as a child. I still believe in stories. I still forget myself when I am in the middle of a good book. Yet it is not the same. Books are, for me, it must be said, the most important thing; what I cannot forget is that there was a time when they were at once more banal and essential than that. When I was a child, books were everything. And so there is in me, always, a yearning for the lost pleasure of books. […] Miss Winter restored to me the virginal qualities of the novice reader, and then with her stories she ravished me.

pg 45 – People with ambition don’t give a damn what other people think about them. I hardly suppose Wagner lost sleep worrying whether he’d hurt someone’s feelings. But then he was a genius.

pg 46 – “Readers,” continued Miss Winter, “are fools. They believe all writing is autobiographical. And so it is, but not in the way they think. The writer’s life needs time to rot away before it can be used to nourish a work of fiction. It must be allowed to decay. […] To write my books I needed my past left in peace, for time to do its work.”

pg 100 – You could hear the power of his brain in his voice, which was quiet but quick, with a facility for finding the right words for the right person at the right time. You could see it in his eyes: dark brown and very shiny, like a bird’s eyes, observant, intent, with strong, neat eyebrows above.

pg 177 – As he listened, he had been been rather struck by her queer little voice. Despite its distinctively feminine pitch it had more than a little masculine authority about it. She was articulate. She had an amusing habit of expressing views of her own with the same measured command as when she was explaining a theory by some authority she had read. And when she paused for breath at the end of a sentence, she would give him a quick look–he had found it disconcerting the first time, though he now found it rather droll–to let him know whether he was allowed to speak or whether she intended to go on speaking herself.

pg 220 – His voice had the unmistakable lightness of someone telling something extremely important. A story so cherished it had to be dressed in casualness to disguise its significance in case the listener turned out to be unsympathetic.

pg 289 – Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes–characters even–caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you.

Why should you read this book?
Because it is a love story to readers and writers. This just might be my favorite book if 2007, just as Elantris was my favorite of 2006. I will be hard-pressed, I think, to find another book that immediately enfolded me in its mystery and charm, leaving me dazed in my everyday activities as I contemplated the characters and plot. Every character is tangible and sympathetic, the setting is distinct, and the plot is original (to me, at least). The style is romantic in the classic sense of the word, yet entirely believable given the narrator’s (Margaret) deep appreciation of books. We’re never given a time period, yet I’m left with the impression that Margaret lives in the 1930s, 40s, or perhaps even 1950s.

Reading this book left me with sensations of DuMarier’s Rebecca, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, LeFanu’s The Wyvern Mystery, and other such romantic, gothic, books. Read it for the intense characterizations. Read it to know the language of a bibliophile speaking with another bibliophile, describing favorite works. I feel as though The Thirteenth Tale has changed me and so my writing: it’s let me believe that there are readers willing to entertain a more romantic and classic style from a modern author, and that is good news indeed.

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