The Thirteenth Tale
By Diane Setterfield
“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.” (p. 8)
Margaret Lea is a bookseller and to her, reading is like breathing or eating; it’s essential to sustain life. When she is commissioned to write the biography of famous novelist Vida Winter, she wonders why. Vida has led her followers astray for years, recounting any number of fanciful tales as the story of her life. All have proven to be false, until now.
Vida is the quintessential storyteller; like Margaret, she lives and breathes stories. Born into a strange, almost outcast family, Vida is raised in a large house called Angelfield on the English moors.
Vida’s story begins with siblings Charlie and Isabelle. Disliked by his father, Charlie is a broken soul who cannot abide the way Isabelle is doted on. He attempts to take his revenge on her, but shockingly, Isabelle proves as aggressive as her brother and the two form an unnatural bond.
The next generation at Angelfield, Emmeline and Adeline, are twins who, as children, can only communicate in twin language. Adeline, like her predecessors, is prone to physical violence which she forces on the submissive Emmeline.
Initially it is unclear where Vida fits in. As Vida Winter is a pen name, the truth of her parentage unfolds over time. Indeed the bizarre and somewhat sinister lifestyle at Angelfield involves many other characters and eventually culminates in a mysterious fire that leaves the house in ruins.
Margaret, as biographer, listens to Vida’s unbelievable tale and verifies her facts. The darkness of the English moors seems to permeate her thoughts as her own family secrets haunt her. Vida’s story brings Margaret face to face with her own demons, which she must eventually acknowledge.
The Thirteenth Taleis a gothic novel full of windswept landscapes, stormy nights, skeletons in the closet, family betrayals and life-long secrets. If there was ever a book to read as the rain rages outside, this is it. Put on some flannels, wrap up in a blanket, and settle into a riveting story, or what Vida Winter would call “[t]he soothing, rocking safety of a lie.”(p.5)