Since I’m on about modern gothic, here’s another one …
The Thirteenth Tale (2006) is Diane Setterfield’s first book, and it had a dream debut – top of the New York Times best seller list in its first week, large advances in the US and the UK and gratifying sales. But is it really a good book, or just the product of publishing hype?
Margaret Lea works in her father’s antiquarian bookshop in Cambridge, and loves nineteenth century literature, particularly the Brontes. She is surprised to receive an offer to write the biography of Vida Winter, one of Britain’s best loved writers, because Margaret isn’t really a biographer – she has merely written a few biographical notes on minor literary figures she has come across in her work. It is also surprising because Vida Winter is notoriously secretive about her background, telling different stories to anyone who asks. In her letter to Margaret, she says that this time, she will tell the truth. Margaret accepts, and begins interviewing Vida. But is she really being honest? ’She meant to tell the truth; I did not doubt it. She had decided to tell. Perhaps she even wanted to tell. Only she did not quite believe that she would.’ And what of Margaret’s own story?
Margaret, the first person narrator, is the anchor for the novel; other people tell their stories to her and she transcribes them, sometimes in the third person, sometimes as ‘we’ and sometimes as ‘I. (Margaret’s recall is nothing short of miraculous; she is able to reproduce the most detailed descriptions and conversations from sketchy notes.) Because of the way the novel is structured, the reader is told things that the story teller cannot have known: that is, the story teller is essentially guessing. Vida has pieced together events before she was born. ‘It is this story – the one that came to me in hints, glances and silences – that I am going to translate into words for you now.’ Hmm. Hints, glances and silences leave a lot of latitude to the translator. I think this is a weakness in the structure, though it does, perhaps intentionally, highlight the provisional nature of all story telling. There is of course, as the reader has been warned, a sleight of hand in Vida’s narrative. I didn’t find it entirely convincing, though looking back, the preparation for it is clever. Vida choses her words carefully – as you would expect of a writer. She never actually lies, though she does leave Margaret to find the truth.
The story Vida tells can only be described as Gothic melodrama, involving obsession, madness, an isolated old mansion and possibly a ghost. There are direct references to Jane Eyre and allusions to Wuthering Heights which strengthen the gothic air. Twins and twin behaviour are also important in the story, though the behaviour Vida describes is surely produced by isolation and neglect as much as by the fact of twin-ness. I guess that ‘Gothic’ and ‘credible’ don’t go together; this sort of story is meant to be over the top, and it’s a matter of taste whether or not you like it. I certainly kept on reading.
Early in the book, Margaret reveals that she also had a twin sister who died shortly after birth; she is haunted by a feeling of loss and senses her sister everywhere. ‘Her closeness repelled me; her distance broke my heart; every sight of her evoked in me the familiar combination of fear and longing.’ This sense of the lost twin is part of her link to Vida’s story, but I think it is an unnecessary diversion. One melodrama is quite enough in any novel.
One slightly disconcerting thing about the book is that it contains almost no social detail, to the point where I can’t really say when it is supposed to be taking place. There are no clues like computers or mobile phones to place Margaret in the present; people communicate by letter. Vida is looking back over forty years or more to a time that may be the nineteen twenties or thirties, so probably Margaret is writing in the nineteen sixties or seventies. If so, World War II seems to have passed them by. I don’t suppose it matters; perhaps it is designed to keep the focus on the gothic atmosphere. But I do find it odd.
So what took the book to the top of the New York Times best seller list? It’s well written, and the story kept my attention. The plot is quite subtle, though more in retrospect than as it first unfolds. It’s easy to read, and not really challenging. All these factors are likely to make it popular. It’s a good read, but certainly not a great book.
You can find out more about Diane Setterfield here – she does sound a nice person! No second book has yet been forth coming, though there may be a novella – a ghost story – out in 2013.