Saturday, August 11, 2007

Off Topic Novel: The 13th Tale

The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel, Diane Setterfield, Atria Publishing House, hardcover, 416 pages.

Partly a saga of a dysfunctional family, partly story of multiple sets of twins, partly a ghost story, Diane Setterfield's Thirteenth Tale reminds me of Charles Dickens', Charlotte Bronte's and Daphne du Maurier's works. Tightly plotted events and exactingly portrayed characters greet the reader throughout the entire the story.

In the last months of her life, the famous novelist seeks a biographer. Vida Winter, the novelist, has been lying her about her origins for decades. Margaret, the biographer, has written about brothers and has this initial conversation with Vida.

"You have given nineteen different versions of your life story to journalists in the last two years alone."
She shrugged. "It's my profession. I'm a storyteller."
"I am a biographer, I work with facts."

Margaret is one of conjoined twins; one twin dies upon separation. The dead sister/twin is the novel's first ghost. Vida's heritage also includes twins, and in addition an estate with an mansion, called Anglefield. These twins are egocentric, emotionally hollow with a mother who is later committed to an an asylum and thereby leaves her lust-ridden, incestuous brother to fall into narcissistic grief and chase working class maidens.

While educating the twins, and after seeing a ghost (probably), the nanny flees. A doctor throws his hands up in despair, a kindly housekeeper and a gardener grow blind and senile as they attempt to raise the twins in the decrepit mansion. A skeleton is found in the ruins of a cottage far from the mansion. There is another death in a house-repair related accident that may also be murder. The mansion burns and in the ruins, decades later, another skeleton is found.

Margaret must winnow the truth from Vida's lies and with Aurelius Love, the biographer and the reader investigate the pathology of the generations at Angelfield. The main ingredients of suicide, incest, madness, twins (at times possibly triplets), ghosts, skeletons, are sprinkled with herbs of the philosophies of history, literature, psychology and education. For desert, there is a late-blooming romance. A full meal after 416 page and you will probably retire to the drawing room for a brandy.

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