The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
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.
The Thirteenth Tale is one of those books that makes me wish I was still a popular literature student just so I could write a paper on it. On the surface, this is a novel about a dying writer who decides to tell her true life story to one hand-picked biographer. But author Diane Setterfield is an admitted “former academic,” and her love of books and literature has crept into every page of this novel.
This book demonstrates very clearly the reason I cannot dismiss all popular fiction as pulp; so often, the works people love are influenced heavily by novels people have loved for decades, or even centuries. The Thirteenth Tale, for example, uses Jane Eyre as both a symbol and as foreshadowing the story’s conclusion. The old manor house, Angelfield, has almost definitely been inspired by Manderley or similar estate houses (Austen-esque, perhaps, or possibly something from Setterfield’s specialty, French literature). Books like this one pay homage to the great novels of the past, reworking them and bringing the themes to life for today’s readers.
Is the plot terribly original? I don’t have a lot of evidence to suggest otherwise, though I want to say Tuesdays with Morrie had a hand in the author-biographer plotline (a wild and probably incorrect guess), and the Angelfield plot felt traditionally Gothic to me, with more than a hint of the Bronte sisters’ work. There are incredible twists and turns, however, that make the story Setterfield’s own.
Anyway, maybe originality is becoming less the point in contemporary literature. The book’s title refers to a “missing” fairy tale from the author’s rewriting of traditional stories such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. The dying author in this story has rewritten the story of Cinderella, for example, to tell the story of her own birth. Original? Yes, in a way, but in the way that Shakespeare was original in reworking old stories to appeal to new audiences.
Originality in the strictest sense isn’t the point in either case, nor is it the point when discussing The Thirteenth Tale — the originality of the work is based on the author’s skill in manipulating the old tales and writing them differently (and perhaps better, in Shakespeare’s case) than anyone had done before. Setterfield is not a better writer than Charlotte Bronte by any means, but with the amount of promise this debut novel shows, it’s possible she may rival Daphne Du Maurier after another few novels.
If you’re a fan of Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre or Rebecca, I would definitely recommend at least borrowing The Thirteenth Tale. Though I don’t think it’s the masterpiece Setterfield might be capable of producing in a few years (the ending felt a little clumsy, and there seems to be a superfluous subplot), it’s a book worth reading while waiting for her second novel to come out.