When I was twelve I fell in love with a book, Jane Eyre. Thus began a lifelong love affair with English novels, particularly 19th century English novels. Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Wuthering Heights and — among the greatest of them all — The Woman in White. So reading Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale I felt as if I was meeting a soulmate.
Not because this novel is like those novels (sort of, you’ll see; it’s a book about books), but rather you feel it is written by someone who loves those novels like old friends and just can’t help talking about them, can’t help harking back to them. The Thirteenth Tale is a homage to the great old novels that people have loved for a hundred years and more. It gave me enormous pleasure to be reminded of them again and again as I read this.
Other reviewers have said this novel is “like a gothic novel, but not quite.” That’s not a bad description. But it’s not so much “like” a gothic novel or the other novels mentioned above. Rather, it reminds you of how you felt when reading them. It recreates the creepiness and thrill, brings them back to life, just for a fleeting moment.
More importantly (at least for those readers who are not familiar with the other novels mentioned) – it’s a fine read. That welcome mix of a page-turning, gripping read and fine writing. And like many great novels of the 19th century, the fact that it is so enjoyable to read can trick you into concluding that it’s “not Literature.”
Well to me, “Literature” is writing that is both stylistically superior and a pleasure to read. Some very literary writers write very simply — E.M. Forster springs to mind. To paraphrase George Orwell, why use a long word if a short one will do, and moreover, why write an impenetrable book if an engaging one will do?
And this novel is engaging. I was enthralled by the story, right from the first page. I defy anyone who enjoys novels not to be gripped.
Here’s how it starts:
“It was November. Although it was not yet late, the sky was dark when I turned into Laundress Passage. Father had finished for the day, switched off the shop lights and closed the shutters; but so I would not come home to darkness he had left on the light over the stairs to the flat. Through the glass in the door it cast a foolscap rectangle of paleness onto the wet pavement, and it was while I was standing in that rectangle, about to turn my key in the door, that I first saw the letter. Another white rectangle, it was on the fifth step from the bottom, where I couldn’t miss it.
“I closed the door and put the shop key in its usual place behind Bailey’s Advanced Principles of Geometry. Poor Bailey. No one has wanted his fat, grey book for thirty years. Sometimes I wonder what he makes of his role as guardian of the bookshop keys. I don’t suppose it’s the destiny he had in mind for the masterwork that he spent two decades writing.
“A letter. For me. That was something of an event. The crisp-cornered envelope, puffed up with its thickly folded contents, was addressed in a hand that must have given the postman a certain amount of trouble. Although the style of the writing was old-fashioned, with its heavily embellished capitals and curly flourishes, my first impression was that it had been written by a child. The letters seemed untrained. Their uneven strokes either faded into nothing or were heavily etched into the paper. There was no sense of flow in the letters that spelt out my name. Each had been undertaken separately – MARGARETLEA – as a new and daunting enterprise. But I knew no children. That is when I thought, It is the hand of an invalid.“The Thirteenth Tale – Diane Setterfield
You learn so much from those apparently simple opening paragraphs, about Margaret and her father and the letter-writer. It has wry humor (poor old Bailey), mystery and suspense; you’re itching to know what’s in that envelope!
It’s not often I feel downright affection for an author, but when I enjoy a good read as much as this, I am very grateful.
Find The Thirteenth Tale on Amazon and at other bookstores.
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