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.
–The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
The Thirteenth Tale is a fiction novel about an amateur biographer, Margaret Lea, who has been commissioned by the famous author Vida Winter to write her biography before she passes away. Vida Winter has always refused to speak tuthfully about her own life- each interviewer and reporter has been given a different story, entrancing perhaps, but drastically different from the others and usually unlikely. When Margaret Lea is called to Vida Winter’s home, Margaret insists on the truth, whatever it may be, and Vida agrees, as long as Margaret promises to let her tell her story start to finish at her own pace.
The chapters that follow are an entrancing mixture of Vida’s memories, and the present, as Margaret watches the author dying before her eyes. Vida starts with the story of her own mother, and then moves on to her own generation, always speaking in the third person as she speaks of Emmaline and Adeline, the nearly feral twins that reign over their broken household. Margaret is left to guess whether Vida is Emmaline or Adeline, while Vida speaks of the terror the twins brought to their own household and occasionally their neighbors.
There was a great deal about The Thirteenth Tale that I loved, especially the characterization within Vida’s past. Emmaline is soft-spoken, good-natured in many ways, and wholely dependent on her sister Adeline, but in some ways, seems the more resilient of the two. Emmaline is better able to learn from the adults in her life, and seems more likely to have a future outside the Angelfield house. Adeline, however, is quite simply a force of nature. Despite the efforts of the adults in her life, she remains stubbornly uninfluenced by their wishes. She rarely eats or sleeps, flying through the house like a ghost. Perhaps the best example of her behavior is her violence in the garden. The gardener John-the-dig and his family have worked for the Angelfields for generations, carefully cultivating extensive gardens full of elaborate topiaries. Seemingly without purpose, Adeline destroys the topiaries that John-the-dig loves and cares for. She is not punished for her behavior; instead, her behavior is treated as inevitible, and rather than acting out in anger, John-the-dig accepts her actions and sinks into a depression, refusing to return to them.
What I liked the most about The Thirteenth Tale was the weaving of two stories – Vida’s history, and Margaret’s present. As Vida’s past is revealed, Margaret decides that she must verify the story rather than accepting it as fact, given Vida’s history of dishonesty. Early in the novel, Vida tells Margaret about a fire that destroyed the Angelfield house when she was a teenager, and the story of that fire seems to hang over everything about Vida’s tale, past and present. While she speaks of her life, the good and the bad, the reader knows that there will be a fire that will sweep through and destroy everything in Vida’s young life, but does not know when or how it will happen. This adds to the ghostly feel of Vida’s words – everything she speaks of was, of course, burned to the ground, so in some ways, her story does not seem to matter. It was all resolved long ago. The strong characterization of the Angelfields that passed and the woman that emerged from the ashes of her previous life still drives the plot. I still felt a pull towards the story, wanting to know how that fire came to be, and how Vida Winter could have escaped it.
In the present, Margaret finds help from family contacts to research the documented life of Emmaline and Adeline Angelfield, while she travels to Angelfield itself to examine the ruins of the house and discover whatever she can about its history. She meets a young man named Aurelius, who seems to have some tie to the destruction of the house, though that tie is a mystery to himself and the mother that adopted him as an infant. This aspect of the novel felt a little flat to me. For a good deal of the novel, Aurelius did not feel sufficiently connected to the mystery of the Angelfield house, so I found myself wishing for something more engrossing to hold my attention when Vida was not speaking. In the end, I was still glad that Aurelius’s story was included, because the conclusion was satisfying, but I wish there had been more of a connection from the start.
Despite an occasional lack of interest in Aurelius story, The Thirteenth Tale was still able to hold my attention through Vida Winter’s story alone. In places, it seemed impossible that Vida Winter could have evolved from docile Emmaline or violent Adeline, and while I was eager to discover the mystery of her past, the spinning of her tale was interesting enough to keep my engaged throughout the novel. What was surprisingly engaging was the mystery of the title itself. Vida Winter wrote a collection of fairy tales, and the original printing was called Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, but only twelve stories were included. Later printings had a different title, but Vida Winter’s fans have always wonderered what the thirteenth tale was, and why it was not included. While Margaret is writing Vida’s past, she is asked many times by Vida’s fans whether she has heard anything about that thirteenth tale. This mystery is solved by the end of the novel, and unlike many such mysteries in similar novels, the answer to the mystery of the thirteenth tale was remarkably satisfying to me. It perfectly fit the characters of the novel, and the story that Vida told Margaret.
In all, I would rate this novel an 8 out of 10. I would strongly recommend this novel to anyone that enjoys historical fiction, particularly those that like something with a bit of a ghost story. Fans of Jane Austen and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would particularly enjoy this one.