Tuesday, 15 January 2008

The Thirteenth Tale

I’m coming to the end of the second book in a row recommended by my Croatian friend (scroll down and you’ll see The Steep Approach to Iain Banks, also about her recommendations) – this one is The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield [fab website, btw]. Not a promising cover (right) – don’t take this the wrong way, people on the other side of the Pond, but it has a US look – a kind of New England-y feel about it, which is very misleading. It is set very, very firmly in England. In fact, you feel it could only really take place in Blighty with its mad, degenerate and inbred sub-aristos, blindly loyal old retainers and banks and banks of fog, not to mention Other Important Weather.
The hardback cover (left) was far more in keeping with the whole tone of the book.

When I wrote here about the Lollipop Shoes before Christmas I remarked on its feel of timelessness. It’s a clever trick, this one of not confining a story to a particular year, or even a decade, and Diane Setterfield has pulled it off even more completely. It’s impossible to say when Margaret Lea is conducting her investigations into the March family and writing the biography of the reclusive Vida Winter. She travels around by train, there are cars and phones and cameras but that doesn’t help us much. She could be conducting her researches any time between the end of the first world war and the present day.
The narrator herself floats in a jar of the same kind of timelessness. She speaks about her childhood frequently but we have no idea how long ago this childhood took place. Both her parents are still alive but, given that they could be anywhere from their forties to their seventies or eighties, Margaret could be anywhere from mid twenties to mid fifties. She has the air of a young woman but then she is – by her own admission – inexperienced in dealing with people and the real world. She is only really happy with books.

And that’s really the point. Where we are in time isn’t what the book is about, though the somewhat gothic events it portrays would be incredible any time after the Second world War. It isn’t a social commentary, it’s a ‘peering through the mists of time’ kind of story; and, in the peering, we are watching one woman – Margaret - discover how another woman – Vida – has invented (read written) her own life. Because this is a book about books and about telling stories. About the importance of what is told and what is left unsaid, about the importance, as Vida Winter herself would say, of having ‘a beginning, a middle and an end.’ Since this is pretty much my philosophy on books, I was pretty much destined to like this one.

Vida Winter is a cult figure but, such are the lengths she has gone to to re-invent her own past, inventing a new biography for every interviewer, that her beginning is utterly lost. Now she is at her end and she wishes to put that right. But her beginning is also the beginning of her twin and it is in this discovery of twin-ness that Margaret Lea – a twin separated at birth from a dead sister – becomes hooked. Her own story, the secrets which were kept from her, becomes the prism through which she sees Vida’s story and this is nearly her undoing, because Vida’s story is almost totally unlike her own.

Though they are very different books, The Thirteenth Tale reminded me of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards, because of the twin element. In that book, though, it’s not so much the separated twins who feel that something is lost but the mother who thinks that one of her twins died at birth, not knowing that she was taken away and fostered (don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler, it says as much on the back of the jacket!) However, the feeling that everything changes once people keep secrets – and, even more once those secrets are revealed – is one the books share. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is more rooted in time and place, it’s more ‘realistic’ in an everyday detail sense but it explores the same main theme as The Thirteenth Tale. Can we live just with what we know, or are we incomplete until we know the truth?



I agree with you about the cover of The Thirteenth Tale - the American version doesn't sum up the essence of the story somehow. I loved this book (I also enjoyed The Memory Keeper's Daughter)and liked it's 'timeless' feel - I'm drawn to stories that have a main character searching for the Truth, although, actually, it's a theme that features a lot in fiction so maybe we are all searching in our own way. I think we CAN live with just what we know - until there's a hint that there might be something we don't - then it becomes an itch we have to scratch!

Congratulations on the book, by the way, that's great news :)

Alis said...

Thanks Karen!