Apparently we all have a crazy woman in our attic – “The Thirteenth Tale” by Diane Setterfield

May 9, 2012 at 10:04 pm 1 comment

“The Thirteenth Tale” by Diane Setterfield, Published in 2006 

I enjoyed this book. I found the writing surprisingly good for the genre and the story. And while rooted in popular Gothic Victorian literature you know, it has enough unexpected twists to keep it interesting.

Margaret works in her father’s antiquarian book store and occasionally writes biographical essays about

Cover of "The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel"

Cover of The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel

writers.  When she is coming home to her apartment one evening she finds a letter the famous British author, Vida Winter, requesting that Margaret write Ms. Winter’s biography. Margaret has never read any of Winter’s writing but she has heard of her through her father’s bookstore.  Ms. Winter is best known for a collection of stories originally called “The Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation.” However when the collection was published it only had 12 stories – so the mystery about Ms. Winter has always been “where is the thirteenth tale?”

Winter herself has spent years giving the media ridiculous and conflicting stories about her own life so Margaret is intrigued to find out what Ms. Winter’s true tale is.  She travels to the English countryside to stay in Ms. Winter’s house, decorated with lavish draperies, pillows, and many, many copies of Jane Eyre (along with a few other books).  The two meet every day and Margaret begins writing Ms. Winter’s story which, though true, is as fantastical and heartbreaking as some of her tales – making it the ever sought after thirteenth tale. And of course, Margaret has her own ghost to face. So while helping Ms. Winter come clean with her past Margaret must finally deal with her own sense of grief and loss.

There is a beauty to the gothic nature of this book. Setterfield makes frequent references to the great novels of the genre including “Woman in White” and “Jane Eyre.”  And just like in “Jane Eyre” each woman in “The Thirteenth Tale” has a crazy and painful secret hidden away in their attic, figuratively of course.  But hey, maybe sanity is just that, keeping the crazy locked away at least until we are elderly – when a little crazy is kind of cute and eccentric.

But all of that said, what I loved most about this book was the homage it paid to the act of reading itself.  The act of curling up, propped against pillows, and opening an old, musty book can be in and of itself magic.  Books transform both the writer as the storyteller and the trusting reader willing to let the storyteller lead them. It becomes a very intimate relationship and one that, when it is a truly beautiful book, becomes hard to leave behind.

“People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. 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 humor, 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 the 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.”
― Diane SetterfieldThe Thirteenth Tale


Entry filed under: May 2012 reads. Tags: , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Shannon  |  May 10, 2012 at 1:01 am

    I, too, enjoyed this book, though it’s been awhile since I read it.


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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.


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