Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield)

That's not quite the book I own. You see, mine has the word 'bestseller' bannered across the top, a word that made me stay away from this intriguing read for so long. I know it sounds elitist, but I guess I just don't like being part of the hype. Until Tuesday came, and I was looking at five hours doing nothing at the airport save for breathing (I forgot to grab some reading material from my own shelves). So Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale became mine, and I didn't regret the impulse buy at all -- 'bestseller' claim notwithstanding.

Margaret Lea is a bookkeeper and an amateur biographer who is asked to write the elusive life story of Vida Winter, an acclaimed novelist. Ms. Winter has had several biographies published, none of them real. Now faced with illness and a haunting desire ('Tell me the truth,' a young man once implores her, a request she doesn't grant), Ms. Winters hopes to finally exorcise the ghosts of her past via a written reckoning. Ms. Setterfield's protagonist, Margaret, is not without her own ghosts, and

What I like most about The Thirteenth Tale is how nothing is wasted in the flashbacks that slowly reveal Ms. Winters' story. They do more than shed light on the characters; they are all important plot points. (Wow. That sounds overly simplistic. Hooray, bluntness.) Where other authors dwell on subplots to enrich the mood and heighten the emotion (a practice I certainly don't frown upon), Ms. Setterfield commands each scene to concentrate on the main story, which really works in this case. I also liked how the time frame was deliberately vague; there are clues, of course, but it added to the mysterious air the way I couldn't quite put my finger on the era.

The story plays up the strangeness of twins, and this certainly made me take a step back from the characters in Ms. Winters' past. I doubt the readers were truly meant to empathize with them in the first place, drawn the way they were as players in a gothic tale. But Ms. Winters' narration, as well as Margaret's involvement with the matter and her personal struggles, gives the events a human touch, and you begin to feel the bereavement with which these women have not come to terms.

I had spent more than five hours at the airport plus another three on the plane, and still I kept reading. I was excited to start my personal adventure in a different country, and still I kept reading. For a gothic mystery, The Thirteenth Tale is heavy and engaging. I couldn't resist the pull of the pages, and I couldn't guess how it was going to end. For a drama, it has just fallen short of moving me to tears, but it still manages to depict the bonds of sisterhood -- and its pains and losses and obsessions.

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