Saturday, November 5, 2011

"The Thirteenth Tale," by Diane Setterfield

I found Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale by chance.  I pulled it off the shelf at the library and sat for twenty minutes there in the aisle, devouring the fabulous first pages, until I knew I would be late.

It's the story of a popular but reclusive writer, Vida Winter, who has never told a single word of truth to any would-be biographer.  Now she's dying, and wants to finally get her real story down on paper.  Accustomed as she is to telling stories, the yarn she spins is layered with truth and lies:  the tale of the sometimes unhealthy but irreplaceable bond of twins.

After the brilliant beginning, it slowed a little:  lots of big words, long descriptions, repetitions, and slow pretty scenes that didn't quite keep me on the edge of my seat.    

I also have a personal pet peeve about books written as if they were oral stories, told one evening around the campfire, or accounts written overnight by a character who suddenly needs to get it all out.  My problem is that all these things would be rough drafts, and I can't quite suspend my disbelief when I find this polished book masquerading as a rough draft.  Yes, I'm quirky that way.  This novel would have been more believable than most, because the storyteller is a magnificently creative and talented writer and storyteller in her own right, but the problem is she tells the story to Margaret, the biographer, who remembers it word for word by just jotting down a few notes.  Then she transcribes it perfectly later.  Ugh.  Really, this isn't a deal-breaker, by any means.  I'm just not sure why writers insist on this sort of device. 

The plot itself, though sometimes slow, is interestingly dark and twisty, full of neglect and obsession, unique personalities and mistaken identity.

The biographer's preoccupation with her own twin, and her poor-me-no-one-understands-me attitude gets a little annoying.  The end is too perfectly tied up, with a tacked-on romance, but overall it's a good read.

The best thing, however, are the fantastic quotes (mostly in the beginning) about reading itself, and the power of stories. 

Here are some of my favorites, beautiful, profound, or unsettling as they may be:

"I've nothing against people who love truth.  Apart from the fact that they make dull companions.  Just so long as they don't start on about storytelling and honesty, the way some of them do.  Naturally that annoys me.  But provided they leave me alone, I won't hurt them…My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with truth herself.  What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story?  What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney?  When the lightning strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails?  No.  When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don't expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid.  What you need are the plump comforts of a story.  The soothing, rocking safety of a lie."
—in a letter from Vida Winter, from The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield.

"Still in my coat and hat, I sank onto the stair to read the letter.  (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.)"
—Margaret Lea in The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

"All children mythologize their birth.  It is a universal trait.  You want to know someone?  Heart, mind, and soul?  Ask him to tell you about when he was born.  What you get won't be the truth; it will be a story.  And nothing is more telling than a story."
—Vida Winter in The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

"A good story is always more dazzling than a broken piece of truth."
—Vida Winter in The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

My rating: 4

For more about why we need fiction, read my blog post here.
For more on Diane Setterfield, click here.
Buy the book here.  


  1. Hi Melinda,

    Sorry I don't get to see you at bridge on Tuesdays any more. Wanted to let you know that I read The Hunger Games and loved it. Have you read the 2 sequels?

    Pam Walter

  2. Pam,
    Wasn't it amazing? I need to write about it here on my blog. I've read Catching Fire, but I rationed out Mockingjay. It's waiting for me at the end of November, when I finish national novel writing month. :)

  3. Pam,
    I forgot to mention: you might like my recently published article about bridge and travel. On the sidebar to the right, at the top, it's the first article under "My Travel Articles."