Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is, on the whole a very readable book. I had heard some mixed reviews, which I think helped as I approached the book with fewer expectations, and in truth I was able to suspend disbelief and rattle along with its Gothic intricacies very happily. I don't think the book was done any real service by the pre-publication publicity; don't expect to love it and you might find that nonetheless you like it very much indeed.

Like the even more readable The Shadow Of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon the main character/ narrator Margaret Lea is employed in the family bookshop and engaged by a book and a mysterious author Vida Winter, sets off on a quest to discover more. Margaret Lea is a minor biographer whose diligence brings her to the attention of the aging and immensely popular reclusive novelist Vida Winter. Miss Winter has never told the truth about her past but now she is about to do so for the first time. With Margaret Lea we follow this narration of dysfunctional families, uncontrollable children, incestuous love affairs, and people in attics, house fires and decaying buildings. Margaret channels Vida's narration, comments on it, digests it, propels our thoughts forward and backward through the possibilities surrounding the mystery, and on balance this is handled very neatly. We also follow Margaret in the present as she make discoveries herself, though this is less neat as Margaret is quite a thin character who lacks bite within the narrative and a convincing life away from her narratorial role.

Read it as an acceptable jobbing work of suspense or a workaday Gothic thriller and The Thirteenth Tale is a fine enough book. It is laced with Gothic allusion (it doesn't take a genius to spot the Brontes and Daphne du Maurier), it is fairly pacy, the narrative tricks and turns are generally pulled off, and the denouement came as a surprise. The surprise was in part I think was because it is only a fraction of an inch this side of plausible, but it is just about plausible, so I did not feel too cheated. It is not fine art but it is a fine Sunday afternoon read. One of the most annoying things was a lapse into a tell rather than show method of characterisation on occasion, and as Geranium Cat says, it is hard to differentiate between Margaret's voice and Vida's. If you approach the book not expecting Jane Eyre then this is not a problem, but I wouldn't like to give it an unequivocal recommendation for that reason. Some like it; some don't.

It was published too close to The Shadow of the Wind I think to have been directly influenced by it but it has many similar features. I preferred The Shadow of the Wind despite some of the trite narratorial quirks like posthumously letters of improbable length solving part of the mystery. I think there are two reasons for my preference: firstly Lucia Graves's (daughter of Robert) translation seems very elegant (I have no idea what the original Spanish literary qualities were like), and secondly the main character is more firmly part of an active narrative and has a distinct personality and feelings, rather than being a device for communicating like Margaret Lea.

Having said all that, on the basis of The Thirteenth Tale I would be very interested to see what Diane Setterfield does next. She is really a very good story teller and I look forward to with what, and how, she weaves her next tale.

If you are interested in Diane Setterfield then you might also enjoy this article by Sally Mackenzie of Macbuiks, which is one of our Collector's Guides over on the left.


Teresa said...

Thanks so much for reviewing this. It's been on my shelf for ages, but I can't quite bring myself to read it because I've been so sure it wouldn't live up to the hype. Now I have a better idea of what type of writing to expect, I'll probably appreciate it more when I do decide that I just need a good Sunday afternoon read.

GeraniumCat said...

I much preferred The Shadow of the Wind, although I thought it too had its flaws.

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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