Book Review: The Thirteenth Tale

As a response to the ridiculousness that is David Gilmour, a book club member had the brilliant idea that this month we should read books written by women.

Where to start? That's not even a genre, it's all genres! I had no idea where to start, so did what I usually do and asked Facebook and Twitter for recommendations. A play was suggested but I never got my hands on it in time (maybe I'll tackle that next), so I went with something suggested on Facebook. Apparently my friend's book club quite enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale, and when I checked it out of the library, one of our staff members said it was really good. You should know though that I don't often read fiction. And when I do, it's certainly not popular-Oprah's-book-club type fiction. I usually shy away from bestsellers. There's a reason I'm not in a normal book club - I just don't enjoy reading that kind of stuff. But I read some reviews that compared this book to Jane Eyre* and I was sold.

October 2013: Women Writers

The Thirteenth Tale
By Diane Setterfield
432 pages

Our main character, Margaret, lives and works surrounded by books and writing and words. Quite out of the blue, a dying prolific novelist summons Margaret to her home. Margaret is to write Miss Winter's biography before she dies. Thus unfolds the story within the story, a twisted family history along the lines of the best of the Brontes, about decaying manor houses, loss, longing, twins, fire and crazy ladies (there are quite a few crazy ladies). And that's all I'll give away so to not spoil the twist, but I'll tell you this: a crazy lady sets a fire. She doesn't jump off the roof though. And Margaret doesn't marry Mr. Rochester, although I think that's coming up in the sequel.

I gobbled up the book, and read it in two back to back evenings. Not necessarily because I enjoyed it, though it was compelling enough, but because I'm more of a product as opposed to process person. And after the first sitting I wasn't enjoying it and just wanted it to be over.

I enjoyed the first hundred pages. Really, I did. It was going so well! I was entranced by the tale Setterfield was laying out before me. And I was so proud of myself! So proud that I was enjoying a popular general fiction novel that came recommended and was talked about on the internet. It was gothic Jane Eyre-esque and a bit of a page turner. My enjoyment turned to distain during the middle two hundred pages though. Things got...weird. And disturbing. The vague parts, which originally were intriguing in the first quarter, became annoying. And stuff happened...disturbing stuff. If you read last month's review you'll know I don't like reading disturbing books because I don't get enough sleep as it is. I was annoyed, annoyed I'd spent my time on a bad book, annoyed I'd wasted a perfectly good book club genre. But it all picked up in the last hundred pages. The annoying vague bits got explained away (some quite tritely, but one with a major plot twist I didn't see coming, though I knew something was up and had just written it off as poor writing by the author a hundred pages earlier) and it all wrapped up accordingly. Yes, I was annoyed the story wrapped up so nicely, happy ending for everyone and all, but at least it stopped being weird and disturbing.

In the end it wasn't a waste of my time, and that says a lot when we're talking about a general popular fiction novel. Was it a great book? No. A good book? Sure. Would I recommend it? Maybe. Would I read it again or anything else by the author? Probably not. Is next month's book going to be happy and sweet? Damn right.

Oh and wikipedia says the BBC is making it into a TV movie. Saw that coming a mile away. It will probably be quite a successful translation to the screen, if it's done right. It was quite vividly written, and I could imagine the setting and the grounds of Angelfield quite well. Actually, I'm looking forward to seeing what the BBC does with it.

*I love Jane Eyre. It's sad and lonely but lovely and hopeful. It's used as a motif throughout The Thirteenth Tale, though if felt forced at times. Setterfield does write well for the gothic genre though, I'll give her that. Also, since I'm ranting, it was annoying the author purposely set the story outside of time, never telling us when Margaret visited Miss Winters. Sure, we surmise the story within the story takes place during a time when the moors were a hiding place for crazy ladies who start fires but after Jane Eyre and before WWI, and there are cars in Margaret's pre-internet time. But what is it? The 60s? 70s? Bah! So many secrets!