The Thirteenth Tale is ostensibly the story of a life lived given over to a biographer. It is a tale of inter-tangled lives focused on loss, horrendous family choices and circumstances. The story is intriguing, the characters are deep and memorable and the setting is beautifully described; you can live in each scene. What sets this book apart, however, is the lovely, lyrical writing. Ms. Setterfield’s writing runs along a tightrope as nearly perfectly as we mere mortals may do in this fallen world: it is precise but warm, analytical yet feeling and story-driven mystery peopled with complex characters whom you could meet on a visit to a book shop. It is, without question, one of my favorite books even though its I don’t have a natural affinity to the story type.
This book has been touted by some as a gothic suspense novel; there are references galore to such works as Jane Eyre (this too is set in the Yorkshire moors), The Women in White and other books who need a remedy of sharp analytical thinking. It is about relationships and the principals are women. You may come to the conclusion that this is chick-lit. Maybe. All I can say is, from the perspective of a guy who has read plenty of John le Carré, Tom Clancy, Dashiell Hammett and Zane Grey, this is a great book. Guys, don’t be put off by labels.
The narrators, Bianca Amato principally as Margaret Lea and Jill Tanner, principally as Vida Winter are so perfectly matched to their characters, I cannot even fathom others narrating. Please do not settle for the abridged version; as lovely as Ruthie Henshaw and Lynn Redgrave (whose sister, Venessa Redgrave plays Vida Winter in an upcoming British TV production), you do not want to lose a jot of Ms. Setterfield’s writing. Ms. Amato’s musical yet pragmatic tone is Margaret and Ms. Turner’s imposing imperial tone that softens on cue is Miss Winter. I’m told I sometimes gush over books. I suppose I’m guilty as charged, but I want to do some unabashed gushing for this audiobook – it’s one of the finest produced.
Of course, don’t take my word for the stellar level of writing, let’s let it speak for itself with a couple of examples:
Margaret is describing an impression of Vida Winter prior to meeting here:
The second is an image. In three -quarter profile, carved massively out of light and shade, a face towers over the commuters who wait, stunted, beneath. It is only an advertising photograph pasted on a billboard in a railway station, but to my mind’s eye it has the impassive grandeur of long-forgotten queens and deities carved into rock faces by ancient civilizations. To contemplate the exquisite arc of the eye; the broad, smooth sweep of the cheekbones; the impeccable line and proportions of the nose, is to marvel that the randomness of human variation can produce something so supernaturally perfect as this. Such bones, discovered by the archaeologists of the future, would seem an artifact, a product not of blunt-tooled nature but of the very peak of artistic endeavor. The skin that embellishes these remarkable bones has the opaque luminosity of alabaster; it appears paler still by contrast with the elaborate twists and coils of copper hair that are arranged with such precision about the fine temples and down the strong, elegant neck.
As if this extravagant beauty were not enough, there are the eyes. Intensified by some photographic sleight of hand to an inhuman green, the green of glass in a church window, or of emeralds or of boiled sweets, they gaze out over the heads of the commuters with perfect in-expression. I can’t say whether the other travelers that day felt the same way as I about the picture; they had read the books, so they may have had a different perspective on things. But for me, looking into the large green eyes, I could not help being reminded of that commonplace expression about the eyes being the gateway to the soul. This woman, I remember thinking, as I gazed at her green, unseeing eyes, does not have a soul.
Setterfield, Diane (2006-09-12). The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel (Kindle Page 10 or 408). Atria Books. Kindle Edition.
A description of the first glimpse of Anglefield from the church.
I walked toward the church. Rebuilt in Victorian times, it retained the modesty of its medieval origins. Small and neat, its spire indicated the direction of heaven without trying to pierce a hole in it. The church was positioned at the apex of the gravel curve; as I drew closer my eye veered away from the lych-gate and toward the vista that was opening up on the other side of me. With each step, the view widened and widened, until at last the pale mass of stone that was Angelfield House appeared and I stopped dead in my tracks.
The house sat at an awkward angle. Arriving from the drive, you came upon a corner, and it was not at all clear which side of the house was the front. It was as though the house knew it ought to meet its arriving visitors face-on, but at the last minute couldn’t repress the impulse to turn back and gaze upon the deer park and the woodlands at the end of the terraces. The visitor was met not by a welcoming smile but by a cold shoulder.
Setterfield. The Thirteenth Tale (Kindle Pages 126-127 of 408) A Kindle Edition.
Finally, a final word about finishes. I’ve heard some classify this book in the category of books with weak endings. Now, while I agree that there seems to be a plague on contemporary writing of not knowing how to end a book (especially bad in books in a series, which seems to be just about every book). I must differ; not only did Ms. Setterfield actually complete the story but did some wrap-up in the epilogue. She completes the tale to the bitter end, hints at new paths for the protagonist and ties off some curiosity questions. I would say two thumbs up for bringing it to completion.