I once did an interview for the Banbury Herald. I must look it out one of these days, for the biography. Strange chap they sent me. A boy, really. As tall as a man, but with the puppy fat of youth. Awkward in his new suit. The suit was brown and ugly and meant for a much older man. The collar, the cut, the fabric, all wrong. It was the kind of thing a mother might buy for a boy leaving school for his first job, imagining that her child will somehow grow into it. But boys do not leave their boyhood behind when they leave off their school uniform.
There was something in his manner. An intensity. The moment I set eyes on him, I thought, “Aha, what’s he after?”
I’ve nothing against people who love truth. Apart from the fact that they make dull companions. Just so long as they don’t start on about storytelling and honesty, the way some of them do. Naturally that annoys me. But provided they leave me alone, I won’t hurt them.
My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with truth herself. What succor, what consolation is there in 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.
–The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
So begins the letter that the famous Vida Winter sends to Magaret Lea, a young biographer who has admittedly never read a single Vida Winter novel. It’s the beginning of a relationship between a woman who has thoroughly hidden her past in the tales she tells to reporters like clockwork for six decades and the young woman who has a troubled past of her own that she ostensibly attempts to push down and out of thought.
The Thirteenth tale is a story about a reclusive writer who has had major success penning tales for most of her life and her struggle to face her past demons at the end of a long road. She hires Magaret Lea, a young and relatively unknown biographer almost as reclusive as the Ms Winter herself. Magaret admits to having never read any of Winter’s novels, being a lover of nonfiction personally. It’s the love of nonfiction that draws her to Vida Winter’s life story, the idea that she may be the first to actually find out where this mysterious writer originated from. She becomes very drawn into the tale Vida weaves, strange as it may be. It’s a tale about generations of family dysfunction, a governess, a ghost, feral twins, and a fiery tragedy. The entire story seems to be another one from in the inner workings of Vida’s brain, so Magaret sets out to find out exactly what is true and what isn’t. Along the way, she finds herself addressing the tragedies and mysteries in her own life that she has ignored and must now face.
This book has been recommended to me several times by several people and I’ve never had a reason to not read it, other than never getting around to it. And now that I have read it, I’m not sure why I pushed it away for so long. Honestly, the writing alone saved the beginning of this book for me. Setterfield has a way with words that leaves you both satisfied and wanting more, which was very good in this particular case. I am a fiction reader and writer. I use books to escape the hum drum of normal life and create worlds outside the limits of our own. Magaret Lea is a lover of nonfiction, facts concreted between the pages of a book. She does reference reading the classics, but she mentions several times that her comfort comes from being able to look into the past through biographies and autobiographies. I do love history, it’s hard not to growing up with a dad who loves it as much as he does, but it’s never been my go to reading material so I had a particularly hard time relating to the young Ms Lea in this book. I never really got over that as the book progressed, but I was so drawn into Ms Winter’s world that Magaret become a second thought to me.
Vida Winter’s history is a story within a story. And I would like to say I’m a fairly astute observer when it comes to mysteries and I will proudly admit when I have figured a plot or secret out, especially when watching movies with my husband. He’s not a fan of my proclamations, truth be told. But I was floored at the way this book ended. And then I was thrilled. The author leaves enough clues around like candy that once you know the ending, you think “Well of course that’s what happened! It couldn’t have been anything else!” but hides them well enough that it’s fairly hard to get to that assumption before the end of the book. In fact, if you’ve read this book and figured out the ending before it was revealed, I tip my imaginary cap to you good sir. I really enjoyed this book and I’m looking forward to her second one, Bellman and Black, though I’ve been told to lower my expectations for that one because it’s hard to top this one.
I would recommend this book to lovers of Cynthia Voigt. Their writing voice seems to be very similar, especially in the regard to the Tales of the Kingdom series. This was also part of 2016 Reading Challenge if you’d like to check it out. My sister has also reviewed this book on her blog, The Perspicacious Bookworm, and you can read that here.
What do you think, sound like a book to add to your To Be Read (TBR) pile? Or if you have read it, how did you feel about this book? Let me know in the comments below!