The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane SetterfieldThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Narrator: Bianca Amato, Jill Tanner
Published by Simon & Schuster Audio on 9/11/06
Genres: Literary Fiction

Book: B+
Narration: A-

The Thirteenth Tale is a compelling and atmospheric story-within-a-story with Gothic elements that both repulse and draw the reader in. The core mystery is served up in bits and pieces, the writing is excellent, and the story is skillfully delivered by dual narrators. This audiobook was an engaging listen and has placed Bianca Amato on my list of favorite narrators.

Margaret Lea’s life has been steeped in books. In addition to being a devout reader, she is an amateur biographer and a bookseller’s daughter who assists her father with antique book acquisitions. When she is contacted by Vida Winter and invited to write the famous author’s biography, she is intrigued but reluctant. Vida Winter is best known for the sheer variety of life-stories she has given interviewers and for her collection of short stories that was supposed to contain thirteen tales but was published with twelve. When Margaret journeys to the Yorkshire moors to meet with Ms. Winter, she is promised the truth of the writer’s past. As her tale of privileged but disturbed siblings, twin baby girls, and the haunted estate of Angelfield House where ghosts can be glimpsed in mirrors begins to unwind, the listener smoothly navigates between Vida Winter’s life both past and present as well as Margaret’s life and her troubled past as a woman whose twin died at birth.

The Thirteenth Tale is both an homage to the books that become touchstones for us as well as a Gothic-flavored ghost story. There’s a sense throughout the book that it’s the stories we don’t tell that haunt us and this theme runs through the life of all the characters. Vida Winter has been making up stories her entire adult life. Some stories were created for entertainment and profit and some as method of holding the world at one remove but her past is also full of stories too horrible to be told. Margaret is comforted by the books she’s been reading since she was a young girl (most notably Jane Eyre) and tormented by the story that was never told to her. She uncovered evidence of her dead twin on her own at an early age and her sense of herself as incomplete is often mentioned. I found her focus on this and on the seeming betrayal by her parents to be an irritating lament throughout the book although it was so convincingly portrayed by the narrator that it was a minor irritation rather than the major one it might have been in print.

This audiobook was an interesting experience. As I started listening, I was immediately captivated by the writing. There is a lovely texture given to many scenes by the word choices employed. It isn’t singular adjectives or similes that build the mental image for the reader but a string of carefully chosen words that act as much subconsciously as on the surface to provide depth and atmosphere. When describing Margaret’s love of books, the language is tactile and sensuous and culminates in an analogy of ravishment. A scene of intense grief is written with words evoking the inevitability of a shipwreck in a storm as the vessel meets a rocky shore and is torn apart, piece by piece, until it is wrack and ruin. The words themselves, though, were rapidly overtaken by the narration. Bianca Amato gives voice to Margaret Lea in a smooth and realistic manner and her presentation of Vida Winter is a carefully controlled work of art. The emotions expressed by these characters are portrayed with a vocal subtlety that belies the intensity that is transmitted to the listener.

As the story shifts to Vida Winter’s recollections of the past, Jill Tanner takes over the narration. I’ll admit to struggling with the contrast in the two narrations. Both were excellent but I had become accustomed to Amato’s characterization and found the almost grande dame delivery style for Tanner’s version of Vida to be discordant, especially for the disturbing events at Angelfield House. The recollections from the past that encompass the middle of the story were at times disconcerting and I had a hard time reconciling the narrative pattern – not just the narration shift but particularly the pronoun shifts. My logical mind understood the that the tale of the twins, their bond, and their sense of themselves as an inseparable single unit that was drastically affected by the events at Angelfield was ideally portrayed by that language shift but the part of me that just wanted a story felt irritated. Vida Winter is a storyteller and as an observer to her tale, I was unsure where the truth of the tale would fall and whether she could be considered a reliable narrator. That was my perspective at the time, however. Having finished the book, I have a better understanding of why it was set up as a dual narration and why events unfolded the way they did. Clearly there is a core mystery to this tale and I am the type of reader who patiently waits for the author to reveal all in his or her own time but those of you who are more aggressive plot untanglers may very well put the pieces together early on. Even so, there is enough of a story outside of the mystery to keep any reader engaged.

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