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The Thirteenth Tale March 17, 2008

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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Vida Winters is a successful author famous for two things: that one of her anthologies was published with a missing story, and everyone knows that she has lied about herself during each and every public interview she has given throughout her life. In the twilight of her years, she enlists the assistance of one Margaret Lea — a bookseller’s daughter and amateur biographer — to chronicle her life’s story. Will she tell the truth? What secrets will be unearthed? And does Margaret have any secrets that she is keeping herself? This is the premise behind Diane Setterfield’s novel, The Thirteenth Tale.

All in all, it is a mystery — albeit a somewhat unconventional one — that should appeal to bibliophiles on principle, if only for the occasional literary reference (implied or otherwise) thrown into the mix. Yet the novel suffers in at least two respects. First, it is without a doubt a very circuitous way to tell a story. Setterfield’s narrative is a whirlwind that employs unsettling jumps in storytelling, whether in terms of the plot’s heavy reliance on flashbacks or in the way that it is pushed forward via changes in perspective from main to supporting characters. In this regard, reading The Thirteenth Tale sometimes feels like a wearying affair.

Second, and more importantly, there is a psychological element to the story that will for many readers be a hit-or-miss affair. One of the book’s underlying themes involves twins and how having a twin can affect one’s psyche. Some may find this interesting; others will find it hard to relate. Indeed, there are moments where this device comes across as “artsy” and drawn out, to the extent that the book’s critical revelation becomes fairly (and logically) predictable.

Nonetheless, the book is interesting enough, owing mostly to Setterfield’s ability to entrance the reader in the opening chapters and wrap things up quite satisfactorily in the end. It is really in the middle that story and storyteller alike waver, however, in what is evidently an attempt to breathe life to an interesting premise and take the reader from Point A to Point B. On balance, this means that The Thirteenth Tale could have been better, which is really just another way of saying that it could’ve been much worse.

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