I went into this book not entirely sure what to expect. I knew it was a gothic tale inspired by books such as Jane Eyre, The Woman in White and Wuthering Heights, and I knew that it was partly about loving books, but I didn't know it was going to be a mystery. Margaret Lea, the reclusive daughter of a bookshop owner, is summoned to write the biography of the nation's favourite writer, Vida Winter. But Vida's compulsive storytelling makes it hard to separate fact from fiction and Margaret is soon drawn into a world of stormy weather, moors, desperate love, violence and feral children. Just what is the truth behind the stories?
There was much I enjoyed about The Thirteenth Tale. I just adored the beginning section describing Margaret's life in the bookshop and her passion for reading (many quotes were copied out of the book) and found Vida Winter to be a fascinating character. The writing just glides across the page and I found myself trying to read faster and faster in order to find out what would happen next. I don't read many mysteries and didn't solve the mystery before the reveal, but I loved looking back and thinking about all of the clever clues I had missed, as well as solving what Setterfield had left deliberately obscure.
Being a bibliophile, I also appreciated the references to some of my favourite books, although they could have been a bit more subtle. I haven't read The Turn of the Screw, but I did catch the homages to Wuthering Heights (wild love), Jane Eyre (madness, governesses) and The Woman in White. I tend to enjoy books that attempt to write in the style of these classics (The Historian) and this was no exception. Of course the writing didn't live up to the standard of the original novels, but I thought it a fitting tribute.
There were parts of this novel I didn't like as much. The constant reference to twins as the central motif grated on me as the book went on. There's only so many times I wanted to read about Margaret looking at her 'other self' in a mirror or windowpane, especially as it was described in the same way each time. I felt the middle sections lagged in comparison with the rapid pace of the end of the book, and I wanted more about Margaret's Mum, who could have been a fascinating character if she appeared in the book for a longer period of time.
I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys the gothic classics, or a good mystery, or who likes reading books about books. I'm going to end this review with my favourite quote from the book;
" In the background is the hiss of the gas heater; we hear the sound without hearing it for, side by side, together and miles apart, we are deep in our books."
First Published: 2006
Score: 4 out of 5