Combine elements of the gothic novel with magical realism; add a healthy dose of references to and parallels with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; sprinkle a dash of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and you arrive at The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.
In true Gothic style, this is a novel about a quest to unearth truths that have been buried for many decades.
Margaret Lea, the protagonist, works in her father’s bookstore and derives more comfort cushioning herself between the pages of a novel than by living in the real world and interacting with real people. She feels an absence or void in her life. One day she discovers a secret about her birth that helps to explain this void—a secret her parents had withheld from her. She was born with a conjoined twin who died upon their separation. Margaret feels an intense loss each time she touches the scar on her side that linked her with her twin.
Margaret is invited by Vida Winter, a highly successful author, to write her biography. Promising to reveal the truth about her life, Vida describes a childhood awash with Gothic elements. There is the large English mansion with its dark corners, its musty nooks and crannies; a family hiding behind its secrets; a shadowy figure intermittently appearing and disappearing; inseparable twins; a no-nonsense governess; absent parents; illegitimate births; a catastrophic fire; and a strong whiff that something is terribly amiss. Margaret embarks on a quest to piece together the truth. As she is drawn deeper and deeper into Winter’s story, she finds herself increasingly embroiled in her own story of the missing twin.
The novel is replete with unexpected twists and turns as Margaret investigates the truth and probes deeper and deeper into Vida Winter’s story until all is revealed. Or, nearly all. The ending feels rushed and a tad unsatisfactory. The identity of the surviving twin is left ambiguous and the missing long-awaited thirteenth tale is allotted barely a skeletal outline.
Diane Setterfield has written a riveting page-turner, choke full of suspense. Her prose is elegant and compelling. Her celebration of words and the homage she pays to novels, especially Gothic novels, threads its way through almost every page in the voice of her protagonist. Despite the somewhat derivative nature of the novel and a hasty resolution, its hypnotic language and suspenseful plot will hold you captive until the very last page.