Review: The Thirteenth Tale

November 23, 2011 Comments Off on Review: The Thirteenth Tale

Margaret Lea, the main character in The Thirteenth Tale, is the perfect reader. What that means is that it makes her the ultimate sympathetic character to other readers, who are generally the ones reading the book. She is also a biographer, which means she is allowed to be nosy and ask difficult questions. At the very beginning of the book she is contacted by famous author Vida Winter—reclusive and notorious for inventing a different past every time she is asked about hers—to write her biography. The time Margaret spends out at Miss Winter’s rural Yorkshire estate is heavily reminiscent of Jane Eyre: the same sense of seclusion, the same edge of the gothic and/or supernatural to the events that happen there. And the story Miss Winter tells Margaret is fascinating and un-put-down-able, although for a very long time you can’t be sure whether she is again making up her past.

What’s weird about the book is that it is almost brilliant. Please note: I think it is already a very good book, writing- and plot-wise, but in both respects it strives for brilliance but only almost makes it. And, weirdly, this gives the reader the impression that “almost brilliant” is not quite as good as “very good.” In some places there are brilliant paragraphs, but then at other places Setterfield writes like an eighth-grade drama queen. But the story is still really really good. It’s one of the first books I’ve read in a long time where I was really excited to pick it up again. For sheer gripping plot, I’d put this on par with some of the important books I read when I was younger (see excerpt). Plus thoughtful meditations. Plus fun characters.

EXCERPT:

Of course one always hopes for something special when one reads an author one hasn’t read before, and Miss Winter’s books gave me the same thrill I had when I discovered the Landier diaries, for instance. But it was more than that. I have always been a reader; I have read at every stage of my life, and there has never been a time when reading was not my greatest joy. And yet I cannot pretend that the reading I have done in my adult years matches in its impact on my soul the reading I did as a child. I still believe in stories. I still forget myself when I am in the middle of a good book. Yet it is not the same. Books are, for me, it must be said, the most important thing; what I cannot forget is that there was a time when they were at once more banal and more essential than that. When I was a child, books were everything. And so there is in me, always, a nostalgic yearning for the lost pleasure of books. It is not a yearning that one ever expects to be fulfilled. And during this time, these days when I read all day and half the night, when I slept under a counterpane strewn with books, when my sleep was black and dreamless and passed in a flash and I woke to read again—the lost joys of reading returned to me. Miss Winter restored to me the virginal qualities of the novice reader, and then with her stories she ravished me.

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