‘The Thirteenth Tale’ by Diane Setterfield

Dana Thompson

My skepticism of modern-day Gothic novels has been, if not shattered, at the very least thoroughly roughed up. It’s difficult not to play the old geezer card by insisting, “Back in my day, Gothic novels were written by the Brontë sisters! I want my hauntings in the English moors!” Because, let’s be honest, back in your day would have to be the 19th century.

Many authors have since played with the Gothic genre, which is generally identified by hauntings, grand houses and the layering of stories within other stories. The resulting healthy dose of creepiness is, when well done, incredibly pleasing to read on a rainy day when snuggled under a blanket and in easy reach of a hot beverage. If this image sounds appealing, I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of Diane Setterfield’s “The Thirteenth Tale.”

Set in modern-day England, “The Thirteenth Tale” takes more than a few giant steps backward in time by means of a story told to the principal narrator, Margaret Lea. A bookshop owner’s daughter, Margaret spends her days helping out in her father’s rundown but magnificent shop filled with dusty, old and sometimes very rare tomes. Note: In my experience, most books written about other books are fantastic (because the people who write them have an unbridled passion for all things bibliomaniacal).

Margaret, an amateur biographer, is surprised one day to receive a written invitation from famed author Vida Winter (a truly great name) to write her biography and make it available to the public at last. This is more than a little shocking because Winter has spent most of her writing career telling fabulous stories but lying about her own life. Margaret is intrigued but doubtful of her own ability (as well as her own interest in the project) and meets with Vida Winter to politely decline the invitation. However, upon meeting the aged author in her enormous home in the country, Margaret discovers she has very little choice in the matter. She––and we along with her––sits down to hear Vida’s fabulous and dark story of love, loss, death, isolation and twins.

Complete with a final twist so sharp you may get whiplash, “The Thirteenth Tale” is nearly impossible to put down. Many kudos to Diane Setterfield; this is her first published book and she really hit it out of the park. The next time you’re looking for a dark, rich and enticing read, pick this one up. Gothicism isn’t just for Jane Eyre anymore.