The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

This is a romance in the original meaning of the word: not a love story so much as a tale of fabulous doings. One of the characters asks, ” ‘What succour, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story?'” A writer after my own heart, in other words.

Margaret lives with her parents over the bookstore where she and her father spend their quiet days while her mother recedes further and further into her own world. The story opens with her receiving a letter from a reclusive writer, Vida Winter, asking Margaret to write her biography. Mystery surrounds the famous author, whose first book was originally entitled Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation but only contained twelve stories. Although the title was fixed in later editions, fascination with the missing story lingered.

Stories help us make sense of our lives. Chaos is reduced to blocks laid end to end to create a narrative arc: a beginning, a middle, an end. What is the missing story, the story that hasn’t been written? It is all about possibility, about knowledge kept secret and half-forgotten histories.

I’m such a book nerd that I love to read books about books. Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels about a man who takes to the road with a tinker’s wagon lined with used books made me think I’d discovered the perfect life. Bookshelves lined the outside of the horse-drawn wagon, so he only has to lift the flaps to open his portable bookstore. When I visited my son in Madrid a few years ago, I was tickled to notice, down a narrow side street, a man doing the same thing: lifting wooden covers to reveal bookshelves attached to the stone walls of the street. Of course we had to stop and buy some books! Other books about books that I’ve enjoyed are A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind. The idea of a Cemetery of Forgotten Books utterly beguiled me.

So I should have loved this book which is so clearly based on Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, with subtle references to many other books, such as The Woman in White and The Turn of the Screw. There’s a ride across the moors out of The Secret Garden and an unwelcoming housekeeper reminiscent of Rebecca.

In fact, the list above is the core of my slight reservation about the book. It’s certainly an enjoyable read. A selection for one of my book clubs, I picked it up at the end of a stressful week and found it just the thing for a relaxing evening. Although I saw the ending coming, the main plot still engaged my interest enough to keep me reading. But I found it a bit too derivative. At times I felt the story being twisted to match the Bronte books. The persistent coherences distracted me from the story and probably contributed to my seeing through the various smokescreens to guess the ending. Or endings, I should say, as there are several.

Having said that, I must add that the book is very well written and an intelligent and absorbing read. The most effective characters, those that come alive for me, are Margaret, her father, and Hester the governess. Perhaps that is because they are not so obviously based on characters from the other novels. And the story that intrigued me the most was one that has nothing to do with Jane or Heathcliff: the story of Margaret’s home life, that disappearing mother, her father’s gentle care of her. Not the fabulous doings, the romance, the madness, but what happens in the family. I’m left thinking Setterfield actually does better without the crutch of better-known books, so while I enjoyed the hide-and-seek game of literary references, I look forward to her next book.

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