Okay, I know that every other book blogger out there read The Thirteenth Tale before I did — but I stayed up until one o’clock last night to finish it, and it blew my mind, and so I’m going to talk about it anyway. Y’all can just lump it. Or, if you like, you can go watch a video of a laughing baby instead. It’s all good.
So, The Thirteenth Tale! There’s a chick named Margaret who works/lives in a bookshop, and one day she gets a mysterious letter from Miss Vida Winter, England’s most beloved novelist ever to exist ever. Miss Winter is also very secretive, and makes up stories when asked for her biography. To Margaret’s great surprise, she invites her to visit her big house up on the moors, and to write Winter’s authorized biography. Predictably, Margaret accepts — and that’s probably enough back-story right there.
Here’s the thing: for the first, I dunno, third of the novel, The Thirteenth Tale reads like a hymn to reading. It’s full of passages like this:
Rising from the stairs I stepped into the darkness of the shop. I didn’t need the light switch to find my way. I know the shop the way you know the places of your childhood. Instantly the smell of leather and old paper was soothing. I ran my fingertips along the spines, like a pianist along his keyboard. Each book had its own, individual note: the grainy, linen-covered spine of Daniels’ History of Map Making; the cracked leather of Lakunin’s minutes from the meetings of the St. Petersburg Cartographic Academy; a well-worn folder that contains his maps, hand-drawn, hand-coloured. You could blindfold me and position me anywhere on the three floors of this shop, and I could tell you from the books under my fingertips where I was. (p 12)
Lives — dead ones — are just a hobby of mine. My real work is in the bookshop. My job is not to sell the books — my father does that — but to look after them. Every so often I take out a volume and read a page or two. After all, reading is looking after in a manner of speaking. Not old enough to be valuable for their age alone, nor important enough to be sought after by collectors, my charges are dear to me even if, as often as not, they are as dull on the inside as on the outside. No matter how banal the contents, there is always something that touches me. For someone now dead once thought these words significant enough to write them down.
People disappear when they die. [. . .] Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humour, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic.
As one tends to the graves of the dead, so I tend the books. I clean them, do minor repairs, keep them in good order. And every day I open a volume or two, read a few lines or pages, allow the voices of the forgotten dead to resonate inside my head. (p 17)
I have to say that I find Diane Setterfield’s writing style kind of … annoying. All those weighty pronouncements and similies, and weird sentence structure. But I love what she’s saying, and this book is like the Harry Potter books: the prose is really not that great, but the plotting is amazing.
Because you see, Miss Winter’s life is not so simple. There are wacko siblings, and (presumed) incest, and twins, and murders, and fires, and illegitimate children, and you’re always caught wondering what happened next, and who everyone really is, and oh, it’s all so beautiful and crazy and I couldn’t put it down. I read the whole thing yesterday, late into the night, and it’s a rare book indeed that makes me miss bedtime. About six times I was sure that I had figured the mystery out, and put every puzzle piece into its place — but I was wrong every time, and while I obviously won’t spoil the ending here I will say this: it’s good. I’ll bet that book-clubs love this thing. And as with the best of mysteries, I can’t wait to read this again, so that I can find all of the things I missed in the first place.
I think that my main beef with The Thirteenth Tale is the prose: it’s a little overblown. And all of the characters spoke with what, to me, seemed like the same voice: Margaret, Miss Winter, Hester, Aurelius, everyone. So, that part of things is maybe not so good. But I can overlook it, because the story is just. so. good.