The Thirteenth Tale—Diane Setterfield

There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic. (8-9)

Perhaps it was the particular nature - and biblio atrocity - of the last book that I read, but less than ten pages into this book, I knew that I was going to like it. As is evidenced by the quote above, it was eminently clear to me from the get-go that this author had a love of books that was at the very least equal to my own.

This book is a wonderful portrayal of a story-within-a-story. Our narrator invites us into her life, as she herself is invited into the life of a reclusive author, Vida Winter.  The mysterious author has long been an enigma to interviewers and those interested, especially with regard to a first printing of one of her books. The original title was Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. However, the book only contains twelve chapters. For years, people have been wondering about the thirteenth tale - even though the book was recalled and the title changed. Readers have long memories.

All her life, Miss Winter has made up a different story every time she was asked for personal information. Now, as she is dying, she feels the immense desire to tell her own story, the true one. She chooses Margaret Lea to assemble her biography, having read an amateur biography that Margaret had written about two brothers. As Miss Winter (aka Adeline March, as we come very quickly to learn) relates her story, it seems as though she is telling a ghost tale, of a sister who lost a part of herself when her twin died in a house fire. Setterfield does a remarkable job of making the March manor seem haunted, making in fact even Miss Winter seem haunted, as a result of the tragic events. She doesn’t allow Margaret to ask questions, insisting that all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and there will be no peeking at the ending of this particular book. This insistence by her character allows Setterfield to hold onto the twist - resolution - of the story a bit longer.

Along with learning about the life of Vida Winter, we also get snippets of the sadness that is Margaret Lea. She feels a kinship with Miss Winter, as she discovered a long while ago that she once had a twin - who died soon after their birth - and her parents never told her. She struggles with having a relationship with her parents following what she sees as them withholding information essential to her identity. She is able to grow and learn from her experiences with Vida Winter, to gather the strength to discuss her twin with her father, to acknowledge to those outside of herself the immense incompleteness she has always felt as a result of that loss.

While reading, I marked so many quotes as possible openers for this blog post, that I had to share some particularly poignant extras below. Setterfield’s way with words is so unassumingly poetic, I found many turns of phrase that particularly resonated with me.

People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex  you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic. (17) 

Peasants and princes, bailiffs and bakers’ boys, merchants and mermaids, the figures were all immediately familiar. I had read these stories a hundred, a thousand, times before. They were stories everyone knew. But gradually, as I read, their familiarity fell away from them. They became strange. They became new. These characters were not the colored manikins I remembered from my childhood picture books, mechanically acting out the story one more time. They were people. The blood that fell from the princess’s finger when she touched the spinning wheel was wet, and it left the tang of metal on her tongue when she licked her finger before falling asleep. When his comatose daughter was brought to him, the king’s tears left salt burns on his face. the stories were shot through with an unfamiliar mood. Everyone achieved their heart’s desire - the king had his daughter restored to life by a stranger’s kiss, the beast was divested of his fur and left naked as a man, the mermaid walked - but only when it was too late did they realize the price they must pay for escaping their destiny. Every Happy Ever After was tainted. Fate, at first so amenable, so reasonable, so open to negotiation, ends up by exacting a cruel revenge for happiness. (27) 

The other rooms were thick with the corpses of suffocated words; here in the library you could breathe. (41) 

Why recall the picture now, you must be wondering. The reason I remember it so well is that it seems to be an image of the way I have lived my own life. I have closed my study door on the world and shut myself away with the people of my imagination. For nearly sixty years I have eavesdropped with impunity on the lives of people who do not exist. I have peeped shamelessly into hearts and bathroom closets. I have leaded over shoulders to follow the movements of quills as they write love letters, wills and confessions. I have watched as lovers love, murderers murder, and children play their make-believe. Prisons and brothels have opened their doors to me; galleons and camel trains have transported me across sea and sand; centuries and continents have fallen away at my bidding. I have spied upon the misdeeds of the mighty and witnessed the nobility of the meek. I have bent so low over sleepers in their beds that they might have felt my breath on their faces. I have seen their dreams. My study throngs with characters waiting to be written. Imaginary people, anxious for a life, who tug at my sleeve, crying, ‘Me next! Go on! My turn!’ I have to select. And once I have chosen the others lie quiet for ten months or a year, until I come to the end of the story, and the clamor starts up again.(113) 

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. (220) 

I’d definitely read other books by Setterfield, and would strongly recommend this book to anyone. (Thanks to Jess - and Rose - for their recommendation of it to me!)

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