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Pickle Me This

October 23, 2006

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield


I think some of my insomnia last night could be attributed to the fact that I was on the cusp of finishing The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, which I’ve just got to the bottom of now. Remarkable before anything else is how positively bookish is The Thirteenth Tale. It’s such a pretty book with a pile of books gorgeously illustrated on the dustjacket, and wonderful old-school patterned endpapers. Story starts in an antiquarian bookshop, narrated by a biographer about the life of a famous writer. Numerous 19th century novels are alluded to throughout, which would be especially charming to fans to such novels. And here we’ve also got a good old-fashioned mystery, with something a bit genre about it. So Setterfield is basically appealing to dorks the world over, but the mainstream will also approve, which is probably why she’s has got herself a flying-off-the-shelves bestseller.

Now The Thirteenth Tale is not a flawless novel. It’s Setterfield’s first book, which is sometimes written all over its pages, and the prose was clunky in places. I get the sense that its charm is its greatest appeal; I certainly loved it for its bookishness. Amateur biographer Margaret Lea, raised in a bookshop, is summoned to write the biography of Vita Winter, “this century’s Dickens”. Winter doesn’t get fast to the point, and by her story, we are led round in circles. This is a story of twinship, dilapitated manor houses, incest, madwomen stowed in various parts of houses, ghosts, murderers, wayward governesses and foundlings. Setterfield plays her fairly conventional material in new and surprising ways, with excellent control as the circles begin to tighten and we zero in on all unsaid. With the sort of plot that has been twisted time and time again, Setterfield manages to twist hers in a new way and I admit that I didn’t see it coming.

I am curious to see what Setterfield will do next. How will she fare with a more conventional form of literary fiction? Will she pull off something similar in her next book? In terms of novelty, she will be hardpressed to out-do The Thirteenth Tale, and she could possibly produce something absolutely awful in an effort to do so. Her story is interesting- read her profile in The Guardian. Of course, we judge her by what she’s done, not by what she’s yet to do. Setterfield might just be a flash in the pan, but The Thirteenth Tale is still a pretty entertaining read.

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