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Monday, October 27, 2008

Book Review: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

“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 on the fibres of your clothes, and when you open the new book they are still with you. Well, it was like that. All day I had been put to distractions. Thoughts, memories, feelings, irrelevant fragments of my own life, playing havoc with my concentration.”

The Thirteenth Tale is one of those wildly popular books that I failed to read when it was first published. I wanted to but I also wanted to wait until I had only the vaguest recollections of what reviewers said. And what I recall is only that the book was considered a success in North America but not so in Britain. It was too British for the British, or some such rubbish.

It is a fine novel. Margaret Lea, book shop clerk and amateur biographer, is commissioned by Vida Winter, famous British novelist, to write her biography. Why? It’s all unclear until the end so I won’t spoil it for you.

I was pulled into the plot twists of the biography Winter was detailing for Lea, who insisted on only writing the truth. The truth is always fascinating, especially when given in autobiography.

The setting is Angelfield, a small town where twins are born to Isabelle, who’s not quite right. It’s a story of abandonment: the abandonment of children by parents who are unable to care for them, it is the abandonment of children by carefree parents who don’t understand children, and it’s the separation and reunification of the twins and their caregivers.

Lots of interesting loops and very much like a fairy tale.

As Vida Winter says, “my gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with truth herself. What succour, 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? What you need are the plump comforts of a story. The soothing, rocking safety of a lie.”

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