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Review Revisited: Diane Setterfield – The Thirteenth Tale

December 8, 2014

Re-read. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (2006)

Length: 416 pages
Genre: General/Historical Fiction

Originally read: 30 December 2006
Re-read finished: 08 November 2014

Where did it come from? The library booksale.
Why do I have it? I loved the audiobook when I originally listened to it, so I wanted my own copy to read again – and then it was the pick of the month for my book club.

A rotting mansion
on an isolated moor?
Great place to raise kids.

Summary: In this book, the reclusive author Vida Winter contacts a young biographer, Margaret Lea, intent on finally telling her true life story at last. The book is set up as a story within a story, told from Margaret’s point of view as she listens to Miss Winter, who is determined to tell the story in her own way, without any interrupting questions. Miss Winter’s story involves twin girls born into the remains of a once-wealthy family. With their father dead, their mother insane, and their uncle closeted with his grief over the loss of his sister, the girls are left to run wild, with only the aging housekeeper and gardener to keep track of them. It is a story of sisters, of secrets, and of loss; a story Margaret knows only too well, since her own twin sister died shortly after birth. But understanding how the story of Adeline and Emmeline March relates to the ailing woman the world knows as Vida Winter is full of more secrets and more loss than Margaret could possibly have expected.

Original Review: Writers who create a character who is “the greatest writer of an age” and then proceed to tell a story in the voice of this character have a fine line to tread. By-and-large, however, Setterfield pulls it off… Mrs. Winter’s story is much more compelling than Margaret’s story which surrounds it, yet it needs Margaret there to put the pieces together and act as a surrogate for the reader… although she’s not allowed to ask the questions we’re dying for her to ask. The book unfolds slowly at first, then with increasing speed, as we’re sucked into an atmospheric, engrossing Gothic mystery. The conclusion was (mostly) surprising, yet fit the rest of the story well. The writing was overall quite good, especially at evoking mood and atmosphere – it got a bit florid at times, and some of the metaphors were forced or just plain wrong, but these are pretty minor quibbles. Many of her descriptions (especially of a bibliophile’s feelings towards books and reading) were dead on the money. Very haunting, finely crafted, and very enjoyable read.

Thoughts on a Re-read This was one of those books that when I finished it for the first time, I immediately wanted to turn around and re-read it immediately. I didn’t, though, for about eight years, and so a lot of the details had slipped my mind. But I remembered the central conceit – or, rather, the big reveal at the end – and so I really enjoyed reading this a second time, being able to catch clues and hints and bits of foreshadowing that I’d obviously missed the first time, but still being able to enjoy the story as it unfolded without it feeling entirely familiar. The first time through I listened to the audiobook – which I remember as being quite well done – and this time through I read. I didn’t find it quite as atmospheric the second time around – most likely because I read faster than I listen, and probably because I listened to it in the middle of a snowy winter while I was shut up in the house, much like the characters in the book, and I currently live somewhere substantially warmer. But Setterfield’s writing is as lovely as it was the first time around, and the story is just as engaging – and at this point, I’m better- (if not yet well-)versed in some of the Gothic novels that were obviously Setterfield’s inspiration, so I found that very evocative as well. I also appreciated the timeless quality of this book – it’s difficult to pin down exactly when the book is set, whether even the modern parts are meant to be decades ago, or whether Margaret is just old-fashioned – but rather than being a hinderance, I thought that that feeling contributed to evoking the overall mood of the book. I don’t remember what my quibbles were the first time (no terribly incorrect metaphors jumped out at me this time, although I admittedly wasn’t looking for them), but this time around, I found this book to be just as enjoyable and just as well-crafted as I did the first time. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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First Line: It was November.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 8, 2014 8:41 am

    This is one that has been on my shelf forever and I still have not read it. Clearly I need to!

  2. December 8, 2014 1:34 pm

    This is on my wishlist – another one to try and get round to reading in 2015!

  3. December 9, 2014 7:27 pm

    I should do some more reread reviews! It would be interesting to try some of the books that didn’t wow me the first time around, and see how I feel about them on a second try. (Or even books that DID wow me, and I just never happened to revisit them.)

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