My sister-in-law gave me this book for my birthday. When I opened the present she mentioned that first she had bought a paperback copy, but she felt that this was a book that really ought to be read in hardcover, so she hastily exchanged it. Now that is an awesome recommendation, don’t you think? Simply knowing that a) it came from Aunt Sara, and b) it ought to be read as a hardcover, was enough for me to propose it to my book group. And let me tell you, she did not steer me wrong. I adored this book.

The Thirteenth Tale is about an introverted bookworm biographer, Margaret Lea, who interviews a famous but reclusive author, now on her deathbed. The author, Vida Winter, turns out to have led a life filled with thrills and chills and tragic secrets. The novel is nicely divided between the substance of Vida’s story and its effect upon Margaret, who has tragic secrets of her own.

The plot is a lot of fun. Vida’s story had twists and turns that I didn’t see coming at all. To quote from the bookjacket: “It is a tale of gothic strangeness featuring the Angelfield family, including the beautiful and willful Isabelle, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline, a ghost, a governess, a topiary garden and a devastating fire.” Add to that list a foundling, an old family retainer, a diary, and a decaying old mansion on the Yorkshire moors and you’ve got all the classic elements of the gothic romance / mystery / horror genre.

Another thing I like about The Thirteenth Tale is that it’s slightly tongue-in-cheek. It doesn’t go so far as to be a parody of the genre, but at times it comes close. A copy of Jane Eyre is integral to the plot, for example. And then there is the doctor who prescribes ten pages a day of The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes as a cure for “ladies of romantic imagination.” Actually, I think Diane Setterfield does for gothic romance what A.S. Byatt did for fairy tales in The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: she pays loving homage and pushes the envelope of the genre at the same time by looking at it through fresh, contemporary eyes.

Diane Setterfield does something more, too. On another level this book is nothing less than a love letter to all the introverted bookworm girls out there. After reading Vida Winters’ books, Margaret says:

I have always been a reader; I have read at every stage of my life, and there has never been a time when reading was not my greatest joy. And yet I cannot pretend that the reading I have done in my adult years matches in its impact on my soul the reading I did as a child. I still believe in stories. I still forget myself when I am in the middle of a good book. Yet it is not the same. Books are, for me, it must be said, the most important thing; what I cannot forget is that there was a time when they were at once more banal and more essential than that. When I was a child, books were everything. And so there is in me, always, a nostalgic yearning for the lost pleasure of books. It is not a yearning that one ever expects to be fulfilled. And during this time, these days when I read all day and half the night, when I slept under a counterpane strewn with books, when my sleep was black and dreamless and passed in a flash and I woke to read again — the lost joys of reading returned to me. Miss Winter restored to me the virginal qualities of the novice reader, and then with her stories she ravished me.

I know exactly what yearning she is talking about. I bet you do too.

* * *

The Thirteenth Tale was also reviewed by: