Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (2006, 456 pages) is just a flat out wonderful book.   The announced theme of my blog is "Twenty First century books about people who read books".  The Thirteenth Tale is the epitome of such a book.   The Thirteenth Tale takes us deeply into the minds of people who love books, old English Classics like Jane Eyre, The Woman in White, Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, and The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes.

The story begins in an old bookstore run by Margaret Lee and her father.   It is the kind of book store that may soon not exist anymore.  The store owner loves books and has passed this love along to his daughter.   The mother of Margaret is disengaged from daily life.   (The reason for this is revealed in due time).   The bookstore makes little or no profit.   The income of the family comes from the father's work as a rare book finder for wealthy collectors.   Some days only three or four customers come in the shop.   The time setting of the novel is not precisely specified (in fact in the study group questions in the back of the book we are asked to guess when it took place) but it is in a time before malls, before TV,  before cell phones.    It was a time when bookstore owners and employees loved books and did not have to answer to stock holders.  If asked to guess I would say in the 1920s (in England).

The story is told in the first person by Margaret. 

The Shop itself makes next to no money.   It is a place to write and receive letters..In the opinion of our bank manager it is an indulgence, one that my father's success entitles him to.  Yet in reality-my father's reality and mine; I don't pretend reality is the same for everyone-the shop is the very heart of the affair.  It is a repository of books, a place of safety for all the volumes, once so lovingly written, that at present no one seems to want to read...And it is a place to read.   A is for Austin, B for Bronte, C for Charles and D for Dickens.
Margaret is a writer.   A writer of biographies of only slightly known figures, people who live in the shadows of the famous and fade into "profound obscurity" upon their death.   One of her biographies very much impressed Vida Winter, a beloved author of many books and a woman greatly venerated.   She has given numerous interviews detailing her life, each of them totally different from the others.    One day Margaret gets a letter from Vida Winter (she is such a formidable person that, even though fictional, I cannot bring my self to just call her "Winter").   Margaret is requested to come to her house.   When she gets there Ms Winter tells her that she wants her to write the true story of her life.

What follows is a very compelling gothic tale of the life and family of Ms Winters.   The plot action was totally compelling and had numerous great surprise twists.   Some wonderful things happen and some heart breaking ones.
We see how the reading life manifests itself in some very diverse (but also very similar) people.   Ms Winters has constructed her self into an iconic character through the internalizing of old books.   She is hiding a terrible secret, maybe we will learn it maybe we will not.   Margaret's father has used his love of books to make a living and to create a sanctuary to retreat from a troubled marriage with its own tragic story.  Margaret loves books totally.   She recasts the things she sees as if they were events in Jane Eyre.   (This aspect of the reading life is also displayed in Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki and in his Arrowroot).  Margaret does not worry too much about her personal life as she knows as long as she has her books she will be ok.   Charles, an older quite well of man, plays a large role in the plot though he is not center stage very much.   Life has not gone his way.   He completely retreats into his library living in his books.  He is so caught up in The Reading Life that he more or less emerges from the library once every few months to sign some checks to keep his family going but he probably has not bathed in this period.  

The Thirteenth Tale shows a deep love of books and The Reading Life.    It is beautifully written.   The characters in the book were very real for me and I cared about each of them.   Margaret's father gave his daughter a great love of reading and a love for books.   She grew up as a reader.   The story line is just so much fun and so clever.   The Thirteenth Tale made me want to reread some books I read long ago, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and read Rebecca and The Woman in White for the first time.   The Thirteenth Tale is a work of subtle and exquisite intelligence by a great story teller.    As I finished this book I had a vision of The Bronte Sisters eagerly pressing The Thirteenth Tale into the hands of Wilke Collins who will advise Arthur Conan Doyle that he has found a mystery that would challenge Sherlock Holmes.   The book does have some darker elements and it requires your attention as there are a lot of twists and turns in the plot.  

I endorse this book without any reservations at all.   It is Ms Setterfield's first novel.   I hope there are many more.  

Mel u


Helen said...

This sounds fascinating. I've added it to my wish list. :) Thanks for the review!

christine (booktumbling) said...

What a great review. I have this one sitting on my waiting patiently pile and now I am ever more excited.

Suko said...

The Thirteenth Tale sounds exquisite. Wonderful review, Mel. I will add this to my TBR list.

Table Talk said...

This is a book you either love or hate and I'm afraid that I hated it. I thought there was nothing genuine about it, borrowed plot and worse, borrowed voice - she was trying to be Charlotte Bronte. But it would be a dull world if we all liked the same books.

Jeane said...

I really liked it. Especially the bookishness. I haven't read enough Bronte (or other classics) to feel if it's borrowing overly much from other works.

Tanu said...

I really really enjoyed this book. The only thing I didn't like would be Margaret's obssession with her twin...that was just plain annoying...Overall, I felt it was an excellent read.

Mel u said...

Helen-I hope you enjoy it and will look forward to your thoughts on it

Christine-thank you!

Suko-thanks as always

Table Talk-so glad to see you back on my blog after too long a hiatus

Jeane-I really liked the bookishness of the book also and in truth if she did borrow some styles etc It does not matter too much to me as it resultd in a book I s enjoyed reading-I have been stimulated to reread the Brontes in 2010

Tanu-it is strange how many twins pop up in books--

Mel u said...

After completing my post I used the Custom Google Book Search

to check for other posts on The Thirteenth Tale-there are maybe 50 of them starting in 2006. It seems when the hard back first came out the publisher did a big e mailing to book bloggers offering them the book and offering to enter them in a contest to win a $100.00 gift card from American Express if they helped them publize the book. You had to e mail a link to your post to the publisher to enter and I guess it was assumed if you trashed the book you wont be entered!- Many rave posts appeared for the book in 2006 and it was a best seller. Of course word of this tactic leaked out in the book blogger world and positive reviews of the 13th Tale from 2006 were taken with a grain of salt once this became known-bloggers were also offered the change to win a leather edition of the book as a prize. Very few of the 2006 blogger revealed they had gotten the book free and were hoping to win $100.00 for reviewing it. This created a bit of a drama in the blogging world at the time and caused a slight back lash against the book-