Do you believe in ghosts? If not, you might change your mind after reading The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. This wonderful debut novel's rich language and clever, enveloping plot will make you think twice about hauntings and keep you guessing until the end.
Narrator Margaret Lea is a quiet, retiring woman who loves to read more than anything else in the world. She grew up around her father's antiquarian book shop and now helps him run the business. She has absolutely no interest in modern fiction, preferring old novels with "proper endings," and occasionally writes biographies of lesser-known, deceased authors.
Margaret is taken quite aback when she is contacted by the most prolific and well-loved author of modern times, Vida Winter. Ms. Winter has never told the same story twice about her origins, but she claims she wishes to tell the truth to Margaret. Intrigued, Margaret leaves London to see Ms. Winter in her home out on the moors of Yorkshire. Ms. Winter is old but proud and sharp, both in her wits and her tongue. Margaret almost leaves before taking the assignment, but Vida Winter catches her by saying she will tell her a ghost story, a story of twins.
Margaret is mesmerized by the idea of twins, for Margaret herself is a twin. She discovered the fact by accident; her parents never told her about her sister, who died at birth. Margaret's mother never really recovered and could never really love Margaret, who feels lonely and bereft, unable to let go of the sister she never knew.
As Vida Winter tells Margaret her story, the reader follows as if in the room with them, or reading over Margaret's shoulder as she transcribes her interviews. The tale takes place at the manor of Angelfield, home of the aristocratic Angelfield family, which was destroyed 60 years ago in a fire. When Margaret is allowed some time away by Ms. Winter, she visits the ruin and meets some people of the nearby village. As Ms. Winter's account of twin girls born under suspicious circumstances unfolds, events occur in real time for Margaret. She tries to verify Ms. Winter's story and wonders if she will run into any ghosts, secretly hoping that one would be her sister.
The story of the fall of the Angelfield family and the destruction of their house is engrossing and intriguing and feels like it comes from the nineteenth century rather than the twenty-first. (It is not for nothing Jane Eyre is referenced throughout the story.) The Angelfield narrative could have stood alone as a Gothic horror story; instead, Diane Setterfield skillfully creates a book-within-a-book, both paying homage to and modernizing the genre at the same time.
Margaret is a well-rounded character. We learn much about her, her occupations, struggles, and feelings; the book is really as much her story as Vida Winter's. Ms. Winter is an enigma to Margaret for most of the book, and so she is to us; we must wait to see her story unraveled. The characters in the Angelfield part of the narrative are simultaneously real and unreal; they are drawn in greater detail than some of the contemporary characters, like Margaret's parents, but they exist in a twilight world on the edge of human society and decency, which does indeed feel ghostly.
The stories in this book are essentially personal. Still, the narrative pulls the reader in and drives forward, feeling both urgent and terribly important. These stories – tragedies actually – point out the power of secrets to destroy lives. The people in this tale divulge their secrets only under direst need, but afterward one finds a sentiment I think of as more contemporary — that airing secrets and revealing the truth has a healing effect.
The Thirteenth Tale is a satisfying novel with many twists and turns to keep up interest. For me, the momentum slacked a little in the middle, but that shouldn't stop readers from wanting to continue on to the end. They'll be glad they did, and they just might see a ghost.