Book Review of The 13th Tale

Book review: The 13th Tale by Diane Setterfield

This past week I completed the audiobook: "The 13th Tale" by Diane Setterfield. Let me begin by saying this is not the sort of book I would normally pick up to read and/or listen to. I'm a fan of Sci-fi, Fantasy, Thriller and the like. I like to read or listen to stories about the paranormal and the imaginative, and I am just not that into stories that are based in real life.

But my wife recently guilted me into listening to this audio book, which was loaned to her by her younger sister. My wife enjoyed it so much she recommended it to me. When I hesitated, she proclaimed that she willingly read books I recommended to her but I did not afford her the same respect. I tried arguing that was the case because the books I recommended were good and her's were girly and I had a man card to protect. But as is so often the case, guilt won the day and manly manhoodiness retreated, licking his wounds. I solaced myself with the notion that life was better with a happy wife, but the caveman within still growled a bit when I loaded the book on my iPod and grudgingly plugged it into my car stereo for my 1+ hour drive to work. The caveman kept growling until the first few lines of the story reverberated through the confined spaces of my little honda civic.

The caveman kept quiet from then on.

In one of the prefaces to Stephen King's book: "On Writing" he writes about a conversation he had with another author. The name of this other author escapes me and though I own both the audiobook and a hardbound book of "On Writing" I am too lazy to look up who the conversation was with. But four words jumped out at me when I read about that conversation. When talking about why they write, what they love about books one of them says:

"It's about the language."

If there is one reason I can give you to read "The 13th Tale" it would be: "It's about the language."

Setterfield's writing is simply incredible. I have read no other modern author who so commands the English language in such a masterful way. This is a novel written in the typical classical style of writers like Conan-Doyle, Bronte, Dickens and Austen. Especially Austen.

Though the enjoyment of the novel is not limited to her intoxicating prose, it certainly was the thing that jumped out at me from the start. I was completely pulled in by the language, so poetic, so academic, so beautiful. At times it seemed I could almost feel myself getting smarter just by listening to the narrators read something as simple as words. At other times under the heady weight of her masterful prose, I felt as though I was a simpleton, scratching my head and dragging my knuckles while another, more educated explorer tried to explain to me why I should not poop where I sleep.

The tale is a bit of a fictional biography of sorts about a young lady, Margaret, who receives an odd request from the most unlikely of people. Ms. Vida Winter writes her a letter requesting her to come and stay with her for a period of time in order to chronicle the true story of Ms. Winter's background and history. This is an odd request for two reasons. First of all, Ms. Winter is one of England's most famous fiction writers of all time. Secondly Ms. Winter has never revealed the true story of her background, though the entire nation has waited with baited breath to discover where the woman came from, but instead Ms. Winter has continued to give biographers fictional tales one right after another to obfuscate the truth about her humble (and disturbing) background.

Why should you read it?

Aside from the beautiful poetic prose and Setterfield's mastery of the English language, the plot has mystery, tension, suspense and a family that would make the 'Best-of" highlight reel of disturbing families from the Jerry Springer show.

If you are looking for a thrilling page turner pumped out of the modern publishing machine then you will be disappointed. Setterfield breaks many of the rules of modern writing, but she does it oh-so-well. At certain points in the story I felt like it flagged a bit like a horse given too long a lead, running itself ragged and tired. What kept me going during those times was the language. Even if the picture she was painting at the moment was boring and my mind wandered, I still felt that it was one of the most stunningly beautiful pictures I had ever seen, so I looked on, unable to turn away.

As I said before this is not the sort of story I usually read. Normally, I am drawn to stories where I understand the overarching conflict right away. I like to know within 25-30 pages that the story is about a guy trying to get to this location, win this girl, beat this monster or solve this mystery. But the 13th tale is not like that.

In a way it is more like watching a plant grow. A seed is planted and from the ground a green sprout is given birth, and over the passing of time you must keep watching to discover exactly what sort of plant it's going to become. The only difference is that from the moment the sprout breaks the earth, it's beautiful to behold. So you keep watching expectantly to see what will come of it.

I was so enthralled in this story, that one night I left the house to go pickup some pizzas for the family for dinner and listened on the way though I only had about a 5 minute drive. I got to the pizza shop before the pizzas were ready. When told I needed to wait a few more minutes, I ran back to my car to grab my iPod and headphones so I could keep listening while I waited. When the pizzas were ready, the guy at the counter had to waive at me to get my attention. The story was that good. I waited in the driveway of my house, pizzas growing cold, while I listened to the end of the story because I didn't want to stop.

There are certainly disturbing elements to the story. As I said, the family that is revealed in this tale is a dark one. Many of the people who make up this family are ugly, inside and out. But Setterfield offsets them with a story that gives a framework for the reader and allows them to fill in the details they like. Even the ending is open to interpretation (I won't give it away, but I thought it was a masterclass in clear but ambiguous endings - if that makes any sense).

About halfway through the story the central conflict begins to unfold and the mystery, the root question, of who Ms. Winter is comes to the forefront. But you must continue on through to the end to discover that what you think you know, might be wrong.

There is mystery, twists and turns, unexpected shifts and revelations that keep you guessing until the very end. And through it all language that is simply so wonderful that it transports you to a different world and lets you know exactly what the English language can do in the skillful hands of a master.

I highly recommend this story to you. If you are a writer, there is much to be learned from Setterfield's command of plot, character, voice, mystery, foreshadowing, and surprises. If you are merely a person who enjoys a good book you can read this and simply enjoy a tale told for the sake of telling a tale. Like a ghost story told over a campfire on a dark and chilly night, it's a story for the sake of a story.

Read and enjoy!



1 Response

  1. Karen Quinn

    Beautifully written review as always. I almost wanted to read it until you described the family as worthy of a “best of Jerry Springer Showreel”! Sorry, I know I misquoted you slightly… But I want real, Stephen King type horror, not real, real life type horror – it’s too scary!

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