I am in the unusual position of thinking that a book was exceptionally well-written and compelling, and yet still not liking it very much.
The Thirteenth Tale is a modern Gothic tale, very much in the vein of Rebecca, Jane Eyre, Northanger Abbey, The Woman in White — and Setterfield is not only consciously aware of it, but calls attention to it throughout the novel. Her heroine, Margaret, is steeped in these books, but also in obscure biographies. She works at her father’s used book store and has never, it seems, really had to do much of anything; her father occasionally trades in priceless literary artifacts, and that sustains her family while the shop is just a side project. She is introverted to the point of being something of a recluse, and she is haunted by her dead twin — a twin who did not survive much past birth. Her mother could never emotionally connect to her because of this (something I’ll expound on later).
Margaret is surprised to receive a summons to write the biography of the notoriously private but fabulously successful writer Vida Winter, whom the narrative posits as a modern-day Dickens, voice of England in a new century. Winter has stalwartly refused all previous attempts at biography, but she knows she’s dying and she chooses Margaret (for reasons that become clear as the book goes on) to document her life. Margaret is suspicious at first, knowing that Winter could easily play her and fob another falsity off on her, so she asks for verifiable details. She gets a few, including Winter’s real name – Adeline March. And then Winter starts telling her story.
It’s compelling, dark, twisted, and thoroughly saturated with death. It begins with death — her grandmother’s, leading to her grandfather’s withdrawal from society. Their children, Charlie and Isabelle, grow up almost entirely without supervision; Charlie becomes obsessed with Isabelle. She goes along with him, teases him, but eventually runs off and marries another man — only to return with twins not much later, announcing that her brief husband is dead. The twins, indiscriminately named Emmeline and Adeline, have Charlie’s colouring. Draw your own conclusions. The twins grow up even more feral than Charlie and Isabelle did, speaking in their own language. Adeline is brutally destructive and without empathy; Emmeline is soft, weak-willed, controlled by her sister, and captivated by stories. The cook and gardener do little to influence them; a governess briefly instills a bit of order but is driven away by scandal. That’s the inner story. The outer story is also saturated with death. Winter is dying, Margaret cares more about dead people than she does about the living, someone else she meets was abandoned as a child and everyone he knows seems to be dead — themes of death and loss just permeate the entire book.
And that is what made it really difficult for me to enjoy. It was just too morbid. I am, by nature, far more sanguine. I mean, it certainly isn’t that I mind death in a story, but throughout The Thirteenth Tale, it just seems as though everyone is luxuriating in death, utterly steeped in it and not particularly willing to be otherwise. Margaret, for example, keenly feels the lack of her mother’s attention — though Margaret must be at least thirty years old by now, she’s never formed another social network, so that has remained a powerful influence on her. And I can’t forgive her mother for that neglect. I can’t even imagine what a devastating loss it must be, to lose a child — but I must also think that, when it’s a child you lose at birth and never know, and when there is another child there who needs you, then it must be a recoverable loss. I cannot fathom nor can I excuse that sort of neglect. But Margaret has never shown any inclination not to be ruled by it or by her dead twin’s ghost, either — rather she ensconces herself in the loss, and that is a point of view I also cannot see from.
I also can’t figure out when the book is set, and that just drives me up the wall. I know it’s intentional — the reader’s guide at the back of the book indicates as much. But I just can’t stand it. It distracts me throughout the entire book. Margaret’s part of the story, the “present day” as far as the narrative is concerned, could be anywhere from the 1950s to the advent of the Internet. When a character is mentioned as having gone to war, there’s no indication of which war. The family is so removed from society and untouched by world events that there’s no indication of what decade the story begins in. The twins could be growing up anywhere from Victoria’s last few decades to the 1930s, knowing only that sixty years have passed between the close of that story and when Vida Winter seeks out Margaret. I couldn’t pin it down, because Setterfield deliberately didn’t want me to, and that frustrated me immensely.
But for all of that, The Thirteenth Tale really is well written. Like I said, I found it compelling even as I disliked it, and the technical proficiency is quite high. Winter’s pronouns as she tells the tale of the twins are particularly well-handled, and the weaving of frame narrative and the meat and bones of the story is deft. The twist at the end was unexpected, but still managed to tie up all the loose ends. Setterfield also deals rather smartly with the idea of unreliable narrators — Margaret wonders throughout the whole book if Winter is being completely honest with her, but, of course, we as readers can never know either way, since the book is written from Margaret’s point-of-view, and we don’t know if she’s being honest with us, either. It’s an interesting angle from which to approach storytelling, and Setterfield makes a nice job of it.
So, on the whole, I can’t recommend this book quite as full-throatedly as I have some others — I just know that others may find far more enjoyment in it than I did. If you like Gothic novels, then, by all means, delve into this one.