25 January 2007

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

I spent 30 dollars on this book in an airport, through-security-locked-in-high-price bookstore. The book was not worth 30 bucks, but it was a very interesting read focusing on the myth of truth. I was pleased by the strangely gothic tale, and yet the focus on twins put me off a bit. I found the extreme distress the main character felt about her twin dying after birth and her parents' hiding of this fact a bit unbelievable. Then again, I am not a twin.

The similarities to Jane Eyre, mentioned often in the book, Wuthering Heights, and Rebecca is comforting, and I don't think I have ever read a contemporary novel with this particular feel. Ghosts that are and are not ghosts, old dilapidated mansions, hidden cottages, twisted families, and secrets secrets secrets.

"Perhaps it's better not to have a story at all, rather than have one that keeps changing" and maybe "a weightless story is better than one that is too heavy." This problem - no story, painful story, easy story - is at the heart of this tale. The characters in the novel all must reconcile themselves to the story of their lives, no matter how painful or how lacking.

"My gripe is not with lovers of the truth but with truth herself. What succor, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story? What good is truth, at midnight, in the dark, when the wind is roaring like a bear in the chimney? When the lightning strikes shadoes on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails? No. When fear an dcold 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." I find the views on truth fascinating in this story. The same woman in the story who writes this also explains that the truth has been eating at her all of her life and that she must tell the truth to someone, have it recorded, before she dies.

And yet, just a few pages later in the story, another character gets to the heart of this dilemma. "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....{but} like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic." So by writing the truth down, having her life story and the life story of those close to her, recorded, her life is preserved.

"Don't you think you can tell the truth much better with a story?" This really struck me because I believe the answer is yes. Sometimes a lie, a made up story, actually reveals more of the truth than a recounting of what actually happened. The truth of the emotions one is feeling at a particular point in time, or the truth of the lesson one has learned, may require more than the facts to translate to others.

By the end, I still don't understand the almost debilitating sense of loss the protagonist feels regarding her twin, but despite my inability to connect with that portion of the story, there is so much I can connect with that I really enjoyed the book.

Buy  |  Borrow  |  Accept  |  Avoid

Read January 2007


  1. I have to admit that I was a little disappointed in The Thirteenth Tale. Maybe it was because of all the hype associated with the book (I seem to recall that the book actually sold better in the States than it sold in the U.K.)that led me to expect something more than the book delivered.

    I enjoyed the first couple of chapters a lot and thought that the book was going to deliver something really special, as promised by everything I'd read about it. But as I got deeper into the book, I started to lose interest and was relieved when I'd finished it.

    But sometimes I wonder if a reader's mood is what determines his reaction to certain books; maybe this one would have struck me differently if I had picked it up in a different mood. It deserved its success, I'm sure, but you couldn't prove it by my reaction.

  2. I enjoyed the gothic nature of the book, but as I said I was disappointed by the protagonist's story and every once in awhile the reference to reading/books and how they permeate her life was a bit annoying.

    I definitely think the reader's mood effects reaction, as well as interpretation. For me, I was looking for an easy read. I got that and some of the elements of the text reminded me of books I love such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, etc.

    Whether the book deserved its success or not is arguable. There are so many books I felt were better which did not receive the level of acclaim this book received.


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