Saturday, December 13, 2008

A haunting, gothic tale within a tale

I had heard many, many good things about this book at the library where I work, as well as from friends and acquaintances. But it wasn't until I read some of the reviews listed below that I finally decided to take the plunge. As a children's librarian, I simply don't read that many books for adults - mainly because there isn't much time, if I'm attempting to keep up with all the books being published for young readers, but also because I have such a towering pile of books from my favorite writers of adult books already.

But sometimes you need to give a book a chance, and between Valentina's, Chris's, Nymeth's and Ladytink's reviews, I was intrigued. I decided on a whim to listen to the audio version of this one, and I was so glad I did. It seems meant to be read aloud, as it is composed of stories within stories, and, as there are two readers, the narration truly brings the story to life.

The basic premise is this: Margaret Lea is a lonely young woman who lives in an apartment above her father's used book store. She is haunted by a ghost from her past, the surrounding events of which slowly unfold throughout the course of the novel. She writes biographies of obscure, dead writers (the only writers whose work she reads), biographies that are published in obscure publications. So she is dumbfounded when the celebrated writer Vida Winter, a woman known as Dickens of modern day of British literature, contacts her, requesting that Margaret write her biography. Margaret is understandably reluctant to do so, as it is well known that Vida Winter has never told her life true story to anyone, always making up fantastical and wonderful stories that are patently false. In fact, Margaret travels to Vida Winter's house determined to refuse her request.

But still...there is something about the woman, about the way she asks Margaret, "Do you believe in ghosts?" The way she is clearly in terrible pain from the illness that is slowly but surely ending her life, that makes Margaret waver in her resolve. Soon she is being told a story to end all stories, a ghost story, a story of a strange pair twins growing up in a rambling old house full of dark secrets and deep silence and, perhaps, ghosts. The story ensnares Margaret's imagination, and before long it relentlessly starts calling to the the ghosts from her own past, forcing her to face things she thought she'd successfully buried years ago...

This audio book was 13 discs long, and even so, I became more and more concerned as the book wore on to its inevitable conclusion - I enjoyed the telling so very much, I simply didn't want it to end! I loved the Gothic feel of the novel, the complex plot with its twists and turns, the unforgettable characters, the drafty old house that was nearly a character in and of itself, the unreliable narrator that made me rethink things constantly, trying to sort out the truth from the misleading red herrings. This is a story in which not is all as it seems, even the events as they are presented.

My only issue with the book, which is an admittedly minor gripe, is the following, and if you've read the book, I'd love your input. It is a major spoiler, so be forewarned and highlight the following text at your own peril! At the end of Vida's tale, when she describes the aftermath of the fire, it seems to me that she would immediately have known which of the sisters was which, based on the clothing they were wearing. One was in bed, after all, and would probably have been wearing a nightgown or pajamas or something, right? And the other, who she'd been watching down in the library, would have been dressed in something else, I imagine. I thought so, anyway, and that made the subsequent ambiguity less believable to me.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable novel, and I particularly recommend the audio version. The narrators did a wonderful job, their voices combining with Setterfield's vivid imagery to paint unforgettable pictures in my mind. This will be on my list of favorite novels read this year.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield; narrated by Bianca Amato and Jill Tanner (Recorded Books, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Beyond Books: "This book is supurbley written. It haunted me as much as the story Vida Winter told Margaret Lea within its pages."
The Movieholic & Bibliophile's Blog: "Diane Setterfield will keep you guessing, make you wonder, move you to tears and laughter and, in the end, deposit you breathless yet satisfied back upon the shore of your everyday life."
Reading Adventures: "Populated with a cast of lonely characters searching for their own truths, this book is an amazing read, and well worth picking up!"
Stainless Steel Droppings: "I have cherished the reading of this book over the last week. All other books were set aside. When I wasn’t reading The Thirteenth Tale, I was thinking about it, remembering it."
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On: "There are so many things that I loved about this book. The characters are wonderful. Vida Winter is someone that I wish truly existed just so that I could sit in her library in front of her fireplace and listen to her tell me her stories."
Things Mean a Lot: "I recognized Vida Winter’s story as soon as she begun to tell it. And no, I didn’t know how it all was going to turn out, but I was instantly reminded of Jane Eyre, of Rebecca, of Tideland, of “A Rose for Emily”, of every novel or story I’ve ever read with a classic Gothic feel, old or new."
Valentina's Room: "It is indeed a book about books, but not only. It’s a Gothic mystery, an incredible page-turner and simply a well-crafted story. Read it."


  1. Lol. I really never even noticed. I'm impressed that you caught that!

    Thanks for the link!

  2. I really enjoyed this book when I read it a couple of years ago. For me, it definitely lived up to the hype!

    My review is here

  3. Hm, you make a good point. Maybe all the clothes had been burned and all that was left was greyish rags? :P

  4. I've read the book twice and never thought of that!..

    to me it's just a really great book to read.

  5. I never thought of that either! Ha! And I so completely loved this book. I am trying to find a second hand copy in hard cover so that I can add it to my bookshelf - to me, this book needs to be hard cover. :) All I can find right now is a paperback version. Argh!

    And I love that there were 13 discs for the audio book. I think that was planned, don't you? ;)

    My review is here. :)

  6. Great review. I'm one of the few who didn't love the story. I thought it was good but not great. I can't even remember why.

  7. I listened to this book about two years ago, and I was so enthralled by the audiobook that I knitted almost an entire blanket while listening, just because I didn't ever want to turn it off.

  8. I'm dying to get around to reading this. I was lucky enough to find a lovely hardocover copy at the Sally Ann for .10 cents!

  9. Ladytink - Thank you for the recommendation!

    Marg - I'm glad you enjoyed it, too. Sometimes the hype leaves me feeling disappointed, but definitely not in this case!

    Nymeth - could be! And really, it doesn't matter much, but it seemed that if anyone would know the difference, Vida would.

    DesLily - I can certainly see why you'd read it twice! I really loved the way the story unfolded.

    Cat - maybe you'll be able to find a remaindered copy now that that paperback is coming out. Good luck!

    Framed - I'm sorry you didn't love it as much as you'd hoped. I guess that's how it goes sometimes!

    Fyrefly - I'm glad that you enjoyed the audiobook as much as I did! I found myself taking longer and longer walks with my dog and my iPod just so I could keep listening to the story. The readers did a great job, didn't they?

    Nicola - wow, that was a great deal! I hope you'll enjoy it despite all this hype!

  10. I was not aware of this book. Thank you for showing it to me, I will have to read this book.

    Tony Peters
    Author of, Kids on a Case: The Case of the Ten Grand Kidnapping

  11. I only skimmed your review as I've been waiting to finish Rebecca before starting Thirteenth Tale! Sounds good though, thanks!

  12. that's great that you loved it!
    I never thought about your point and it certainly a good one, maybe the fire didn't let her see properly?
    or maybe she knows the truth but doesn't want to tell it.

  13. Tony - thanks for stopping by! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

    Mariel - reading this one has made me think about rereading Rebecca some time soon. That's always a fun one to revisit. I hope you're enjoying it so far!

    Valentina - that would be just like Vida, wouldn't it, holding on to a secret like that through to the end?!

  14. I loved Rebecca, just reviewed it and I want to read it again already!

  15. I absolutely adored this book. Couldn't say enough about it and have encouraged everyone I know to read it. I am so glad you enjoyed it. If you are interested, my review is here:

  16. Mariel - I'm glad you enjoyed Rebecca! I really do have to revisit that one soon.

    Carl - Thanks for the link (I've added it above). I loved your review! It's been a couple years, though, eh? Perhaps time for a reread...?

  17. I've seen this book reviewed quite a bit also. Now that you've enjoyed it, I've been pushed over the edge...Its going on the list

  18. I'll be interested to hear what you think! Sometimes it's hard, going in with high expectations, but I think this one won't disappoint.


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