The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

I read The Thirteenth Tale such a long time ago, back when it was a brand new book. I loved it, I read it quickly, and when I had to take it back to the library I bought a copy to keep. I had to, and I sat it on a shelf to wait for the particular someday when it would be the right time to read it again to come along.

It was still there when a BBC film came along towards the end of last year. I liked it, I thought that it was as good as it could be given the constrained running time, but it was just pulled fragments out of my memory, and I remembered that there was so much more.

And so it seemed that someday had come.

But I didn’t read, I listened instead, to a wonderful reading by Jenny Agutter. That made perfect sense, for a book that is about the magic of stories, storytelling, stories within stories, stories about stories ….. and it pulled so many more memories out of that particular corner of my mind where books live.

“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.”

‘The Thirteeneth Tale’  is a book  that draws upon a wealth of others to make a richly embroidered story of its own.


      • A large part of ‘Jane Eyre’
      • A ghostly echo of ‘The Turn of the Screw’
      • A solution of ‘The Lord of the Flies’
      • A dash of ‘Wuthering Heights’
      • A dusting of ‘If on a Winters Night a Traveller’
      • More than a hint of ‘The Secret Garden’

…. and you are on the way to understanding.

‘The Thirteenth Tale’ isn’t the perfect book. It’s a little uneven, its a little too implausible, and it is a little too full of influences for there to be much space left for anything truly original. But I loved it anyway.

After all, you don’t love people because they are perfect, but because they are perfect for you and what you are.  You love them for what they are, because you recognise something in them, and simply because you do ….

And so it was for me and this book; I loved it for its style, for its ideas, for its influences, and, most of all, I loved it for its wonderful understanding of the importance of books and stories.

The story began with Margaret Lea,  who worked in her father’s antiquarian bookshop and aspired to writing literary biography, receiving a hand-written letter from an England’s most famous novelist. She was dying, and she wanted Margaret to write her biography.

ThirteenthtaleVida Winter had always evaded questions about her past, by spinning a different story every time she was asked, and she had succeeded in keeping the secrets of her early life hidden. Margaret wondered why she wanted to talk, whether she would tell her the truth, and why she had chosen her when she could have had anyone she wanted.

She had never read any of Vida Winter’s books, but when she picked up her father’s rare copy of ‘Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation’ she was captivated. And she was curious. Why were there only twelve stories? Why were the final pages of the book blank? And where was the thirteenth tale?

Miss Winter told Margaret the thirteenth tale.

It was a story of a troubled family with dark secrets, of a crumbling manor house in the middle of an declining estate, of children growing up wild, and of the dreadful consequences of all of that.

It was a wonderful gothic tale, wonderfully imagined, beautifully described, and quite gloriously told.

Margaret was fascinated, and so was I. It was a wrench every time I was pulled out of that story and back into the room where the story was being told.

But the two contrasting narratives worked together very well, and letters and diaries added more layers to the story

Margaret questioned the truth of the story she was told. She searched for proof, and in doing so she had to come to terms with her own past, and tell her own story.

“Everybody has a story. It’s like families. You might not know who they are, might have lost them, but they exist all the same. You might drift apart or you might turn your back on them, but you can’t say you haven’t got them. Same goes for stories.

I was rather less taken with Margaret’s story than I was with Miss Winter’s, but I understood that it had to play out as it did.

I loved the themes that were threaded through the two stories – identity, loss, adoption, reconciliation – and most of all I loved the bookishness, and the understanding the importance of stories that underpinned everything.

I have no more words, just two more quotations to cherish:

“All morning I struggled with the sensation of stray wisps of one world seeping through the cracks of another. Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes — characters even — caught in the fibres of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you.”

“My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with the truth itself. What succor, what consolation is there in the truth, compared to a story? What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney? When the lightning strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails? No. When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don’t expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid. What you need are the plump comforts of a story. The soothing, rocking safety of a lie.”  


Reading Books: Past, Present & Future

I have to do this from time to time. I have to celebrate the books I’ve read, organise the books I’m reading, and think about what might come next.

Past present and future …

The past …..

R.I.P VIII ended at Halloween and, though I didn’t read many of the books I lined up at the start of the season, I was very pleased with the eight books I did read.

RIP8main1My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart
The Misbegotten by Katherine Webb
Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
Treveryan by Angela Du Maurier
Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll
The Unforgiving by Charlotte Cory
Hell! Said the Duchess by Michael Arlen
The Blackheath Séance Parlour by Alan Williams

I’ve nearly finished Burial Rites by Hannah Kent too, and I’ve made a start on Deborah Harkness’s Shadow of Night.

Two of my RIP books – Treveryan and The Unforgiving slotted into my Century of Books, and I passed the 80% mark in the middle of last month.

The present …..

I have a few books in progress.

I spotted a beautiful 30th anniversary edition of The Sunne in Splendor in the library a few weeks ago, and that made up my mind to re-read it for my Century of Books. I loved it years ago, I love it now, and I’m into the final act.

winters-night-jpgI was warmly recommended Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller to fill a difficult year – 1979 in my century of books – I was intrigued, I ordered a copy from the library, and then I discovered a readalong. Clearly I was meant to read this book, I started to read last night, and I am already smitten.

I’m re-reading Angel by Elizabeth Taylor too, in a lovely new hardback edition. It won’t fit into my century, but it was too lovely to resist and I have books that will fit lined up. Books like And Then You Came by Ann Bridge for 1948, A Little Love, A Little Learning by Nina Bawden for 1965, High Rising by Angela Thirkell for 1933 ….

I had a few books to choose from for 1933, but when I learned that Christmas at High Rising was on the was my mind was made up.

AusReading Month badge1901, on the other hand, was a tricky year. In the end I decided to re-read My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, and again it seemed to be meant, because I discovered that this was Australian Reading Month.  A survey of my shelves found books by Eleanor Dark, Kathleen Susannah Pritchard and Henry Handel Richardson that I’d love to read. Or I could re-read Oscar and Lucinda or The Thorn Birds, either of which I could slot into my Century of Books ….

More books than I could hope to read, but it’s good to have choices!

The future …

I can’t think much beyond finishing my century at the moment. I’m clearing the decks as much as I can to get that done – no more book-buying and no more library reservations this year, because I need to focus on the books I have already.

But I bought The Luminaries and The Goldfinch, before the I put those restrictions in place, and they are going the first books of  my new project – of a year of reading the books that call me …

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

I fell in love with Diane Setterfield’s first novel – ‘The Thirteenth Tale’ –and when a second novel with an intriguing title appeared after a long wait, my expectations soared. Maybe they went too high because, although I found some things to love, in the end I was disappointed.

18243293A  prologue set the story up beautifully. A group of boys, out playing in the countryside. One has a catapult, he sees a bird, he takes a shot, and the bird falls. Dead.  He moved on, he quickly forgot, but at that moment a shadow was cast over his life.

The senses of foreboding was there from the start, and it was reinforced the recurring images of ravens, and the occasional sighting of a shadowy figure …

The story that follows is built on classic lines. A young man, from humble beginnings, rises in the world. He applies himself, he seizes every opportunity, to achieve his ambitions. And fortune seemed to favour him; obstacles were swept from his path. But at the pinnacle of his success, tragedy strikes. He tries to rise above it. He strikes a bargain, he enters into a partnership, and he sets out on a new path. But he loses sight of what really matters, and that, eventually, causes his downfall.

It’s a fine story, and Diane Setterfield tells it well, her style matching her story quite perfectly. She paints such lovely, such well-chosen, Victorian period details. I was intrigued as I learned how mills worked, and could work; I was fascinated to watch as Bellman and Black explored and exploited the huge potential of the morning business. The atmosphere was wonderful, and so was that feeling of foreboding that never quite went away.

The themes – the growth of industrialisation and the fashion for mourning – are utterly right for the period, and they fit the story beautifully.

But it’s such a pity that the plot is stretched and repetitive, that so many characters and relationships are under-developed, and that many interesting ideas, to one side of the main storyline, were left unexplored. It was maddening because the story, the settings, the descriptions were so vivid, but the understanding, the insight into the people that populated the story was missing. I wanted to care, I wanted to know, I wanted to be drawn in. But I couldn’t, I didn’t, I wasn’t.

That might not have mattered if it had worked well as a ghost story, but it didn’t. The raven sequences felt clunky, and the other elements seemed under-developed.

I was captivated by ‘Bellman and Black’ as I read; I saw failings, but there was plenty to hold my interest. It when the story was done I was horribly aware that things had been missing. This might have been an short story, it might have been opened out into a novel with a broader scope. But as it stands, I’m sad to say that it isn’t quite right.