I have to admit at the outset that I doubted Diane Setterfield’s debut novel The Thirteenth Tale could live up to the hype surrounding it. In various reviews it had been compared to everything from Dickens to the Bronte sisters to Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind (this seemed the most outrageous claim to me, loving that novel as I do). After reading it I can honestly say that it lives up to the hype.
I am by no means saying that Setterfield is Dickens, nor that The Thirteenth Tale is The Shadow of the Wind. Neither is true, and Setterfield never claimed this for herself or her novel. But in a world where we love to stuff people, books, and everything else into neat little categories, invoking these literary greats when talking about The Thirteenth Tale is understandable, because it is one beautiful read.
This is one of those novels that literally has everything you could want jammed into its 416 pages, and yet it all works. There is mystery and history and ghosts and danger and romance and books and feral twins and even two heroines, and all of it weaves together perfectly. Maybe best of all, you won’t guess the ending midway through (I thought I had…wrong). And yes, in that list of things a few sentences ago I included "feral twins;" got your attention now?
The publisher’s blurb on the inside flap of the book says: "The Thirteenth Tale is a love letter to reading…a return to that rich vein of storytelling that our parents loved and that we loved as children. Diane Setterfield will keep you guessing, make you wonder, move you to tears and laughter and, in the end, deposit you breathless yet satisfied upon the shores of your everyday life." That’s one bold guarantee, but Setterfield delivers.
This is the kind of book that deserves to be read in front of a crackling fire in a comfy chair over a long weekend; a storm raging outside would be a nice addition, but isn’t critical. What is critical is that you make sure there are no pressing items on your calendar, because you won’t get to them once you start this book. It is a literary escape of the very best kind.
Early in the novel, there is an exchange between the two main characters, the elderly reclusive author Vida Winter and her young, naive, would-be biographer Margaret Lea:
"You have given nineteen different versions of your life story to journalists in the last two years alone."
Vida shrugged. "It's my profession. I'm a storyteller."
Vida is indeed one hell of a storyteller, and so is Diane Setterfield.