It is easy to see why Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale is popular. It appeals to the reader’s curiosity for the sensational. As readable as this novel proves to be, it shows a number of weak points, mainly around the narrator. Somehow, Setterfield managed to make this book a little over-the-top but, remarkably, it was done without the usual reliance of clichés.
When one of the world’s most famous contemporary novelists decides to finally stop telling stories and divulge her true life’s story, she turns to an obscure sometimes-biographer and full-time bibliophile (who, ironically, had never read any of this famous writer’s novels). Notorious for evading personal questions and spinning stories for inquisitive reporters, Vida Winter, finally decides the time has come for her personal history to be told. The path to her choosing Margaret Lea involves a little leap but it isn’t too great a strain to pull off.
With only a few ground rules, including no questions and an understanding that the tale will be told in order, Margaret takes up at Miss Winter’s house, listening during the mornings, transcribing in the afternoon, and sleeplessly pacing during the night. Haunted by more than just the scandalous and misleading tale that Miss Winter is telling, Margaret is a difficult narrator. The way that she describes her love affair with books is something I find I can completely identify with. Where her tendency to over-describe could push the limits of my patience at times, when it came to the books I found it less annoying.
The main participants in Miss Winter’s biographical tales are compelling, but there could have been more character development. I’m not sure that deeper characters would have been enough to counterbalance the mildly ridiculous storyline they have been placed in, but it would have gone great lengths to reduce the tacky tinge of the plot. Similarly, the sub-plot (if it is even developed enough to call it a sub-plot) about Margaret’s family dynamics is so underdeveloped as to be largely irrelevant to the larger picture. It is in the forefront trying to carry too much of the story for its frail state.
As a narrator, Margaret fell flat for me but it does not matter as the form in which the novel is presented means that Margaret’s input is limited to editorialized comments with the bulk actually being told by Vida Winter. I cannot decide if this is an excellent example of keeping in character (Miss Winter is supposed to be the popular novelist while Margaret is the obscure and only occasional academic writer). Part of me almost regrets that more of the novel does not follow Miss Winter’s rules for telling the tale to Margaret.
The Thirteenth Tale is an engaging novel but it did not capture this reader’s attention too far beyond completing the final pages. It had a few unexpected twists but because of the novel’s scandalous tone throughout, the shocking revelations cannot successfully carry their intended weight, giving the conclusion a commonplace feel. Considering the fictitious notoriety of Miss Winter, I was hoping for a more memorable ending. Though it failed to meet my grander expectations, The Thirteenth Tale remained readable and was well paced (it didn’t fall into dangerously dull narrative lulls) and was okay on the whole.