The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield


Books within books within books. Sometimes I’m skeptical of such literary devices- the self-consciousness can distract at the expense of the narrative. Look how clever and well-read I am! But done well, they serve to create a complex, layered narrative, with all the satisfaction of slotting puzzle pieces into place.

Thankfully, The Thirteenth Tale is the latter- I devoured it in a single sitting. Quiet Margaret Lea lives a half-life; smothered in grief, sneaking small pleasures by writing biographies and working in her father’s bookshop. She adores stories. One day she gets a letter from famous, mysterious and prolific author Vida Winter requesting her services as a biographer.

Vida’s story takes Margaret to Angelfield, the dilapidated stately home of the Angelfield family. Uneasy and unusual, she meets the characters of Vida’s past to discover who she really is: Struggling housekeeper Missus, stern governess Hester, obsessive and strange Charles, beautiful but wilful Isabelle and her read-headed twins Emmeline and Adeline.

Setterfield borrows heavily and obviously from her source material- the plain governess of Jane Eyre, the tragic, complicated incestuousness of Wuthering Heights, the suspense and evil of The Turn of the Screw. Heavily Gothic (an evil twin, come on) with the traditional emphasis on plot of early 20th century literature, it is arguably a little old school but it is no less enjoyable for it.

Read: On a cold winter’s afternoon with a mug of hot tea to keep the chills away.

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