So there’s this young woman of (extremely) modest means named Margaret Lea who works in an undervisited bookstore and reviews books and writes author biographies on the side – but she only does it of obscure authors and their barely known books. This is because she doesn’t see herself as a real biographer and doesn’t want to compete with ‘real’ writers, yet she’s a conscientious reviewer of her type. She doesn’t really do it for the money, though she could certainly use that, but she still considers herself a scholar. So far, so good.
Suddenly, she gets an invitation to interview and write about Vida Winter, a mysterious famous author who may or may not have written a lost book called The Thirteenth Tale. Margaret’s reluctant at first to even consider the assignment but decides to go anyway just to see what it’s all about, intending all along to turn down the job. Only this famously lost manuscript is something she’s never really able to ask Ms. Winter about … because once she arrives at the spooky-looking estate (you knew there would be one, right?), nothing goes as planned. Worse, when it comes time to discuss the important stuff, the older author is repeatedly unavailable. Still, it’s a paying job, so that’s an incentive for our young writer to stay. And while Margaret’s there, quite another mystery (or two) presents itself.
Sound frustrating? You bet – and it is for the heroine, too. Yet there’s always just enough of a tantalizing hint presenting itself that she hangs in there to see if there will be a resolution. We the readers hang in, too, because there’s just enough resolve in this young writer that we want to root for her. Oh, and there may be an old, unsolved murder involved, too, though that doesn’t pop up until later.
So begins the very unsettling 2006 novel The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. I picked it up by chance almost a year ago, and the strange mental aftertaste of it still lingers for me. You could say it really made an impression, which is why I recommend it for your autumn reading list. A good way to spend Samhain or the Day of the Dead, for instance.
Setterfield is a British writer who is one of the new Gothic novelists, which is always good. She only recently gave up a life in academia to write novels, and this one won international rave reviews (don’t let that stop you, Homer Simpson fans). That said, this has to be one of the most disconcerting novels I’ve read in a long time. You keep thinking that blood and gore or terrors will appear around the corner at any moment, but it’s much subtler than that. The mystery and spooky details don’t unfold as you expect, and they seem to come almost grudgingly. It’s as if the mystery itself is playing hard to get – not unlike the strange Ms. Winter – and yet the story is all the more seductive for it. Every time I wanted to put it down out of pique (and sympathy for the longsuffering young writer), I just had to pick it up again and read a little more. Which always ended up being several chapters more. This story craftily got its hooks into me and wouldn’t let go, but it did so in a sneakier way than a Stephen King novel or one by Anne Rice would.
Naturally, there are matters of more than just passing interest – of personal interest, even – that slowly reveal themselves to the young writer, and to us. That just makes her (and us) more determined to get to the bottom of things. Without giving anything away, I’ll say this: was the ending satisfying? Well, yes … but I still felt a little creeped out after I finished the book. Which is why it’s such a good choice for a cold and dreary autumn evening, especially accompanied by a cup of hot tea, a snifter of Armagnac, and some soft music (Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody, sung by Janet Baker and conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, would be a good choice).
You can find The Thirteenth Tale at your local independent bookstore or online at Barnes & Noble (sure, you can find it at Amazon, too; but since Amazon is treating authors published by Hachette really badly right now, because it and the publisher – well, more than one publisher, actually – are fighting over book discounts and the authors in question are suffering because Amazon suddenly won’t sell their books, except at draconian rates that make it difficult for authors to earn a living, we’re saying nuts to Amazon. Forget them! Buy from someplace else instead and help support the authors).
And of course, if you like the book, do tell others about it and about us! Meanwhile, bundle up and go safely whence you go – it’s spooky out there.
Your spooktacular literary critic,