It is a truth universally acknowledged that whenever there’s a movie with a dense and picturesque plot, the book on which it’s based is vastly and unequivocally better.
I must admit, I first came across The Thirteenth Tale in its movie-incarnation – meaning that I watched the movie before I read the novel. Thankfully, the movie adaptation per se was quite good, which is why I knew I had to get my hands on the novel as well.
The Thirteenth Tale is Diane Setterfield’s first novel; a tale inside a tale, which means that it takes place during two different timelines. There is the present, which in this case is sometime during the 50s, when librarian and biographer Margaret Lea interviews and learns the story of the elusive writer Vida Winter. Then there’s Vida Winter’s past – her childhood and adolescence which she paints in vivid colours and gothic imagery.
Apart from taking place in two different timelines, the story can also be said to have two different and distinct narrators, since the one who serves as the focal point and foil of the story in the present is Margaret, while the narrator who tells us the tale of the rambling and mysterious family estate of Angelfield and of her dysfunctional family is Vida Winter herself.
As Margaret unveils the chilling secret dwelling at the heart of Vida Winter’s identity, the reader discovers the haunted past which had been following Margaret as well. The two plots, told by the two narrators in two different time-lines entwine and end up paralleling each other in a magnificent story seeped in darkness, hope, love and regret.
This is a book about twins, a book about haunted houses, a book about skeletons in closets and bodies in the woods. It’s a novel about childhood, about death, about parenthood and about loss and isolation. Most of all perhaps, it is a story about identity – about the person we are, the person we want to be, and the persona we show to the world.
Lovers of Jane Austen, gothic novels and psychological mysteries will have a field day with this one. The novel produced a storm of interest ever since it was published in 2006. Just a week after it was released, it gained first place in the New York Times Bestseller List of 2006. Its colourful suspense, its mysterious air pregnant with unsaid words and hidden messages, the psychological dance prevalent between the two fallible narrators – one wanting to uncover memories and discover truths, the other slowly falling towards the pitfalls and hidden pain of her own memories – create a mesmerising whole.
Like a snake, the reader is entranced by the shifting realities explored within each chapter, always searching for more, without ever knowing quite what he is searching for. I totally recommend it!