The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield


Everybody has a story.  It’s like families.  You might not know who they are, might have lost them, but they exist all the same.  You might drift apart or you might turn your back on them , but you can’t say you haven’t got them” ~~ Diane Setterfield in The Thirteenth Tale

From Krista’s Perspective:

I will start right off by just saying WOW.  I absolutely loved this book and barely put it down.  I read this book in just a few days and this story was positively captivating.  Ironically, the main character is an author who captures the attention of all her readers in a unique way, which has made her extremely famous, and here I was just as drawn in just as much as the fictional characters in the story.  I was actually disappointed if I had to put it down because it has been a good while since I have read something that kept me guessing from beginning to end.

The Thirteenth Tale is based on author Vida Winter, the mysterious and elusive author who never seems to tell the truth about her past to anyone, and Margaret Lea, a quiet nobody and self-proclaimed book nerd who works in her father’s bookstore and occasionally writes biographies.  Winters hires Margaret to write her biography after years of staying quiet about her past and it becomes a task that is just as enthralling as the books Winters had written.  At one point Margaret says, “I was so preoccupied by the story I was hearing, writing, that I had no wish for anything else.  My own life, such as it was, had dwindled to nothing. My daytime thoughts and my nighttime dreams were people’s figures not from my world but from Miss Winter’s. It was Hester and Emmeline, Isabelle and Charlie who wandered through my imagination and the place to which my thoughts turned constantly to Angelfield.”  Together these women spin together a story that is dramatic, suspenseful, constantly twisting, and rarely predictable.  The addition of sadistic Charlie, deceiving and manipulative Isabelle, the disturbing twins Emmeline and Adeline, the giant man Aurelius, and even John the Dig and Missus made this book complex but yet still easy to follow.

I am not quite sure what made this book so appealing to me.  Was it because it was the first book I read at the end of another brutal semester in university?  This is entirely possibly since I could finally sit and study something that didn’t require highlighting in a textbook.

Was it because it was based on a girl who loves books and writing and words in general?  Probably.  It definitely appealed to the book nerd in me.  At one point Margaret’s character speaks about her love of books and says, “I did not simply read them.  I devoured them.  Though my appetite for food grew frail, my hunger for books was constant“; a statement about books I’m sure most of us could agree with.

But a third thing that drew me into this book was how Setterfield incorporated a sense of grief into the book whether it be for a past life, lost family member, or simply mourning for something without fully understanding what was missing.  She writes, “We all have our sorrows and although the exact delineaments, weight and dimensions of grief are different for everyone, the color of grief is common to us all”.  With my own most recent encounter with tragic grief, I found her words really truthful and honest because grief is different for everyone and yet it is exactly the same.  Setterfield also wrote, “Grief was always present. It settled like dust upon the household. It covered everyone and everything: it invaded us with every breath we took. It shrouded us in our own separate miseries”; another simply written statement that stuck with me because of personally understanding how pervasive grief can be upon one’s life.

The story has an amazing flow to it and while you are being inundated with information/stories from the past and present it is still easy to follow.  It progresses through Vida Winter’s life, both past and present, it talks about Margaret’s own story, which Winters insists everyone has one, it follows the investigation of Aurelius’ abandonment, and even follows the research into how twins actually co-exist and function together.  It is a lot, but Diane Setterfield weaved it all together so seamlessly that you won’t even question for a second how many different stories are being told at once.

I will finish with one last quote which resonated with me when I read it and even now.  This is what anyone who writes aspires to and dreams of.  The bone chilling reality of what happens when we die compared with the lasting effect ones words can have on the world was something that really spoke to me and I hope they do for you as well.

“For someone now dead once thought these words significant enough to write them down.  People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. It is a kind of magic.”


Plot – 4/5
Writing/Style/Form – 4/5
Characters – 5/5
Enjoyment/Entertainment Value – 5/5

Overall Score – 18/20

From Lauren’s Perspective:

I’m not going to lie.  It took me quite a while to get into this book.  I could put that down to many things.  It could have been the fact that I started reading it just before the holidays and got swept up in family time, the birth of my niece, and the death of my grandfather.  It could have also been that I spent the whole year reading and the whole month of November writing and I just finally needed a break from words, but that seems unlikely.  It could have also been simply, a book that was slow to start and didn’t hold enough interest for me to want to continue.

Krista had read the entire book before I even made a dent in it.  I felt close to giving up on it because I had no motivation to continue, but as its back cover had initially drawn me in  with promises from others of an old school gothic tale similar to the likes of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, I had no choice but to continue.  And I’m very glad I did.  Because even if the book simply did take a while to pick up, for me, as Krista told a much different story; it became intriguing, spooky, and absolutely beautifully written.  It became a beautiful story of truth, lies, and the importance of storytelling.  Setterfield writes, “My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with truth herself.  What succour, what consolation is there in truth, compared to as story?  What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney?  When the lightening strikes shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails?  No.  When fear and cold make a statue of you in your bed, don’t expect hard-boned and fleshless truth to come running to your aid.  What you need are the plump comforts of a story.  The soothing, rocking safety of a lie.” And to me, this sums up the theme, the mystery, and the entire purpose behind the story.  Setterfield sets out to tell a story of truth, and the reader gets to go on the journey with her.

The book follows two characters, Margaret Lea, the books main narrator and biographer extraordinaire, and Miss Vida Winter, the mysterious author who is finally sharing the true story of her life, after hiding behind lies and stories her whole life.  This book is absolutely filled with suspense and tantalization.  It brings back the gothic charm of old literary favourites, introducing us to characters like the reclusive Uncle Charlie, the talented but over zealous governess, Hester, and the doting but slightly slow missus of the house, Miss Dunne.  The characters are all fully flushed out, with immaculate characterization that is both alluring and elusive.

Along with amazingly deep and satisfying character development, Setterfield draws the reader into the world with her beautiful descriptions of the gothic surroundings.  The story has three main settings, first is Margaret’s home, where she spends most of her time in her father’s old second hand bookstore.  You can practically smell the must on the books, hear the shuffling of the pages.  It is a place I would love to visit.  Then there is Miss Winter’s grand old mansion, filled with mystery in the unused rooms and a misty, rainy exterior that added to the chilling overall feel of the house.  Third, was Angelfield, Miss Winter’s original home, where she grew up and lived, but is now an old, dilapidated disaster ready to collapse at any moment.  The three main settings mingled perfectly with the feeling of the story and had the ability to give me chills just reading about them in detail.

The plot itself was incredibly well thought out and intricate.  It delved into worlds of the past while still keeping us interested in the present lives of the characters.  It wound a beautiful tale of deceit, mystery, secrecy, and the discovery of truth.  It was a story within a story within a story.  I have not read anything quite like it and it was wonderful.  It really is a story for lovers of books, lovers of story telling, and lovers of words.  And the words themselves were beautifully written, when Setterfield writes, “There is something about words.  In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner.  Wind themselves around yourl imbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts.  Inside you they work their magic.”  This beautiful description of her obvious appreciation of the written word is felt by her readers as well as by the author herself.  You can feel the beauty in her words and her extreme passion for them throughout her intricate tale.

So I know it seemed as though I might not have loved this book.  It took me a long time to read, longer than I even care to admit.  But when all was said and done, Setterfield did an immaculate job of telling this story, this elusive Thirteenth Tale, and I would beyond recommend it to anyone who enjoys a beautiful gothic story like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre or Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.  Give it a chance.  I’m very glad I did.


Plot – 4/5
Writing/Style/Form – 5/5
Characters – 5/5
Enjoyment/Entertainment Value – 4/5

Overall Score – 18/20


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