The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Setterfield, Diane (2006). The Thirteenth Tale. Toronto: Anchor Canada.
The Thirteenth Tale is a story-within-a-story, a tale with a twist, the chronicle of a woman’s life told through the eyes of her biographer, who also happens to be her reader. Or, I should say, it is the story of both women – two lives that overlap and intertwine, both with mysteries to keep and secrets waiting to be set free.


Vida Winter is a reclusive writer, a woman that the world knows nothing about. She has written and published books for over forty years but has always woven tales of fantasy for anyone who tried to interview her. Margaret Lea runs a bookstore with her father and dabbles in writing biographies of obscure people in her spare time.


At the start of the story, Margaret receives a mysterious letter from Ms. Winter saying that she wants to tell her the “truth.” Yet, the problem for Margaret is not only that she is not a “professional” biographer but also that she has not read a single book by Ms. Winter. Margaret has been a devourer of books her entire life but has never been one for popular novels, preferring instead the 19th century fancies of Jane Austen, the suspense of Wilkie Collins, and the Gothic chill of the Brӧnte Sisters and Mrs. Radcliffe. That is until she stumbles across a copy of Ms. Winter’s first novel, Thirteen Tales, in her father’s priceless collection. It is the only copy of the book in existence, as it has been recalled and re-titled after only one copy was sold. It is a book with only twelve stories; the page where the thirteenth would have begun is blank. And thus begins a journey into a realm not unlike Charlotte Brӧnte’s Jane Eyre – a haunted house, a simple plain girl turned heroine, foggy moors, a fire that changes everything, and secrets that threaten to destroy entire households...


It is quite obvious from the novel that Margaret is not the only reader present; with allusions to many Gothic novels and works of classic fiction, the novelist herself must be a veracious reader. One of the most enjoyable parts of this novel is Setterfield’s ability to draw readers into the story – to make them a part of the tale. One feels as though one is sitting in the library of Ms. Winter’s house, listening to her account.  Margaret sums up the true reader’s experience by saying, “the hours between eight in the evening and one or two in the morning have always been my magic hours. Against the blue candlewick bedspread the white pages of my book open, illuminated by a circle of lamplight, were the gateway to another world…reading had never let me down before. It had always been the one sure thing.”

I would recommend this novel to those who considers themselves readers and to those who enjoy Gothic novels and tales of mystery and suspense. The writing is graceful, engaging, and very smart; frankly the twist at the end is enough to recommend it.