Monday, October 30, 2006

Book Review: The Thirteenth Tale

From the back cover of the book:

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 raoring like a bear in the chimney? What you need are the plump comforts of a story. The soothing, rocking safety of a lie. --Vida Winter

I bought this book because the review in the Borders ad was enticing and the discount with the coupon brought the price of the book down to a reasonable level. The Thirteenth Tale is a mystery story. A detective story. A ghost story. A love story. A story about the special relationship between reader and author. The perfect Hallowe'en book for those of us who appreciate a well-written sentence, who have read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Turn of the Screw, and, perhaps, a touch of Rebecca.

Margaret Lea grew up in an antiquarian bookstore, amidst a treasure trove of books: timeless classics, specialized histories and mathematics. As Margaret notes, "The shop itself makes next to no money. It is a place to write and recieve letters. A place oto while away the hours waiting for the next international bookfair. In the opinion of our bank manager, it is an indulgence, one that my father's success entitles him to. Yet in reality--my father's reality and min; I don't pretend reality is the same for everyone--the shop is the very heart of the affair. It is a repository of books, a place of safety for all the volumes, once so lovingly written, that at present no one seems to want.

"And it is a place to read."

In the bookstore, Margaret found her vocation: writing biographies of the "also-rans" in literary history. She enjoys finding the diaries and memoirs of those who were almost famous in their lifetimes and have since become unknown.

Then she receives a letter from Vida Winters. Vida is contemporary writer, still alive, though gravely ill. She has chosen Margaret because the time has come to tell the truth about her life. That night Margaret takes a copy of Miss Winters first book: Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. Despite her best intentions, Margaret is sucked into the stories and discovers there are only twelve stories, not thirteen. Whatever happened to the thirteen tale?

According to Mr. Lea, no one knows. The thirteenth tale was not ready at the time the book was published. No one knows what became of it. Perhaps Margaret can resolve this mystery.

Margaret meets Miss Winter who persuades her to write her biography. Miss Winters conditions are simple: every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And Margaret must let Miss Winters tell her story her way. No skipping around. No questions.

And there's one more thing:

"Tell me your story," Miss Winters askst.

"I don't have one," she answers. Of course, that is not true. Everyone has a story and slowly Margaret's story is revealed.

Diane Setterfield is a masterful storyteller. And she is a Reader, one of the Tribe for whom books are not merely pieces of paper but a necessary part of life. I found myself nodding in agreement with several descriptions of losing oneself in a book, knowing a book by its feel, writing and having time slip away. I believe this is Ms. Setterfield's first novel and there are few "clunky" passages--for the most part, the novel caught me up and carried me along with it. It has a quiet, deliberative feel: events march at their own pace, there is very little sense of hysterical urgency. It is a very British book--moors and manors and countrysides--and there is also no sense of when this all might be taking place. It could be the early-20th Century, it could be more modern, though there is no mention of the modern gizmos most of us take for granted. (Ms. Lea, for example, writes in long-hand, with pencil and paper.)

The Thirteenth Tale is a good book to use to take a break from the sturm und drang that accompanies this election season. A wonderful escape!

On the March Hare Scale: 4.5 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks