The enigmatic Winter has spent six decades creating various outlandish life histories for herself — all of them inventions that have brought her fame and fortune but have kept her violent and tragic past a secret. Now old and ailing, she at last wants to tell the truth about her extraordinary life. She summons biographer Margaret Lea, a young woman for whom the secret of her own birth, hidden by those who loved her most, remains an ever-present pain. Struck by a curious parallel between Miss Winter’s story and her own, Margaret takes on the commission.
As Vida disinters the life she meant to bury for good, Margaret is mesmerized. It is a tale of gothic strangeness featuring the Angelfield family, including the beautiful and willful Isabelle, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline, a ghost, a governess, a topiary garden and a devastating fire.
Margaret succumbs to the power of Vida’s storytelling but remains suspicious of the author’s sincerity. She demands the truth from Vida, and together they confront the ghosts that have haunted them while becoming, finally, transformed by the truth themselves.Goodreads Overview
Haunting, Cautionary, and a Modern Day Gothic Novel
I’ve read The Thirteenth Tale twice in the last ten years and I still feel as though its mystery has a grip on me. I categorize novels as shocking as this as “How Not To Live” books, meaning its characters make wrong choices and pay terrible consequences for them. In Setterfield’s case, this story feels like a haunting reminder what happens when children aren’t raised with honorable parents.
Because so many characters lacked moral influences, they made choices rampantly, with no thought to those they could hurt. In The Baghavad Gita, Krishna referred to these type of choices as Rajas, or unbridled activity. Those whose lives center on Rajic energy make choices fast-paced with no thought to any damage it can have on others. It is like running at full speed and spreading fire through every step.
The Thirteenth Tale is a testament to how damaging decisions led to multiple people’s demise and suffering, a chilling reminder of what awaits the selfish and unchecked.
Setterfield is one of the few authors besides Agatha Christie to hold me in suspense till the end of her book. The writing and layout for this story are impeccable. It has a similar build and feel to it as Gothic books like Emily Brontë‘s Wuthering Heights or Wilkie Collins‘s The Woman in White. Throughout its duration, the story feels as though it is unwinding itself, trying to release and heal from the horrors trapped within the author Vida’s mind.
The moment I started reading, this book had its hooks in me. I could barely put it down. It doesn’t participate in idle chatter or get sidetracked. It knows the type of story it wants to tell, and it does it well.
The main character Margaret serves as a modem for releasing Vida Winter from her horrifying past, one she had been running from for a long time. Once Vida begins her tale, it is obvious why. Many characters’ actions are really shocking and disturbing. This is partly because there are a plethora of examples of different types of mental illness and disorders scattered throughout the cast of characters.
That being said, no character Setterfield placed in this story feels obsolete. They all serve a purpose, whether they are people from Vida’s past or those characters like Margaret living on the sidelines, listening in. They are in a word unforgettable.
Who is this book for?
I would not recommend The Thirteenth Tale to anyone younger than 21 because, as I said before, there are really heavy themes and topics discussed throughout this book. Its done in a tactful way but it can still be upsetting for anyone unprepared. If you enjoy Agatha Christie mysteries like And Then There Were None or Daphne du Maurier‘s Rebecca you might like this book.
There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.
There are too many books in the world to read in a single lifetime; you have to draw the line somewhere.
Our lives are so important to us that we tend to think the story of them begins with our birth. First there was nothing, then I was born…Yet that is not so. Human lives are not pieces of string that can be separated out from a knot of others and laid out straight. Families are webs. Impossible to touch one part of it without setting the rest vibrating. Impossible to understand one part without having a sense of the whole.
Thank you for reading! See you tomorrow!