The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise — she doesn’t know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter’s dozens of novels.
Late one night while pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.
As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter’s account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story.
Both women will have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets… and the ghosts that haunt them still.
“Tell me the truth.”
These are the words that a young journalist speaks to Vida Winter in the beginning of this book. Vida is an author famous for spinning magical tales. In books, and about her life. Each time she releases a new story, she grants multiple interviews, in which every journalist asks her the story of her life, and leaves thinking that they, finally, after decades of deceptions, are the one she’s told the truth to.
But she never does. Until now.
Out of the blue, she writes to an amateur biographer named Margaret Lea, telling her that she has chosen her to be her official biographer. That she is finally ready to tell the truth.
What follows is…something I find myself at a loss to describe. Setterfield’s prose is of the magical variety. The kind that lifts from the pages to wrap you in its spell and transport you bodily into the book. At one point in the story, Setterfield perfectly describes how I felt when I finally set it down:
“There was a sudden rush in my head, I felt the sick dizziness of the deep-sea diver come too fast to the surface. Aspects of my room came back into view, one by one. My bedspread, the book in my hand, the lamp still shining palely in the daylight that was beginning to creep in through the thin curtains. It was morning. I had read the night away.”
I immediately woke up my fiancé (at 5 a.m. on a Saturday) and began to whisper to him about what I had just read. Speaking at full volume didn’t seem right, sacrilegious even, because I was still caught in this book’s thrall and the ghosts of those who haunted the pages seemed to stalk my waking mind.
I finished it four days ago, and still my fingers twitch toward my beautiful hardcover copy. Because The Thirteenth Tale is a book that you need to read at least twice in your life. The first time, to learn the truth. The second time, to see with eyes wide open what is really taking place within these pages.
This is easily one of my top 10 books of all time.