The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

A riveting first novel whose layers of mystery weave a magical spell

Carol Birch
Monday 02 October 2006 00:00
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Diane Setterfield's debut novel arrived already wreathed in acclaim, and it's easy to see why. The Thirteenth Tale is a cleverly plotted, beautifully written homage to the classic romantic mystery novel. Rebecca and The Woman in White spring to mind, but especially Jane Eyre: a book that Setterfield weaves into the substance of the plot, and whose Gothic elements are skilfully reimagined in a peculiar tale of madness, murder, incest and dark secrets.

Margaret Lea's life is devoted to the antiquarian bookshop run by her father. Scarred by the youthful discovery that she was born with a twin attached to her side, whose removal and death allowed her survival, she lives quietly, reading voraciously and occasionally writing, for pleasure, the biography of some literary also-ran.

Out of the blue, she is summoned by Vida Winter, a writer of staggering output, whose much-loved books account for a vast amount of shelf-space worldwide. Miss Winter, now a famous recluse, has given scores of versions of her life story, each equally fanciful. Now approaching death, she is ready to tell the truth. Margaret is daunted, but Miss Winter, a bizarre combination of Miss Havisham and Norma Desmond, lures her in with the offer of an irresistible story. "Once upon a time," she says, "there was a haunted house... a library... Once upon a time there were twins." Margaret is hooked, as is the reader.

So begins the incredible history of Angelfield House, the ruin where the writer grew up. We encounter the weird children Charlie and Isabelle, whose sadomasochistic bond is allowed to flourish amid the squalor and neglect. Weirder still are Isabelle's offspring, the wild red-haired twins, Adeline and Emmeline, who run amok and communicate in a twin language all of their own.

Enter a governess, sensible and brisk, determined to bring order to a mad household. All the elements are in place: the strange house, the topiary garden, the ancient library, faithful old retainers, and the constant vague possibility of the supernatural. Add to this compulsive readability, and you have a winner.

The Thirteenth Tale is not without fault. The gentle giant Aurelius is a stock character, and the ending is perhaps a little too concerned with tying up all loose ends. But it is a remarkable first novel, a book about the joy of books, a riveting multi-layered mystery that twists and turns, and weaves a quite magical spell for most of its length.

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