Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

I am usually reading three or more books on any day:  an audio book, a print book, and another print book that I am recording for MAB.  When I travel, I always bring a "stack" of books on what I facetiously call my bookPod (a Creative Labs MP3 player that's the size of a matchbox and a fraction of the cost of its iCousins).  I also bring a print book or two for times and places when the audio just doesn't work.

No matter the format, I think most avid readers have more than one book going at a time, and no doubt we're all entertained when coincidental connections between them crop up like little gremlins.  

Before I left for Bali, I loaded Diane Setterfield's novel, The Thirteenth Tale, onto the bookPod.  I remembered only that other audio readers had given it rave reviews on  Whatever.  Sounds fine.  And if I don't like it, I'll load a few other books as back-up.  

The Thirteenth Tale is a book-lovers' book. There are two narrators:  Margaret Lea, who, with her father, runs an antiquarian book shop in London, and Vida Winter, the reclusive and secretive English novelist who summons Margaret to write her biography.  (Two narrators distinguish the characters in the audio reader's mind, and both, as it happens, are superb.)  Vida Winter is a teller of tales and is notorious for concocting delicious fictional accounts of her own life. "Every child mythologises its own birth," she insists.  Margaret, however, is uninterested in writing a fictional biography and demands the truth.  "A good story is always more dazzling than a broken piece of truth..."  insists her subject.

It's a classically English tale that rolls out, with manor houses, mad relatives, ghosts (living and dead) in the attics, gardeners, house-keepers, governesses, and, of course, glorious libraries.  Margaret is not without her own skeletons in the closet, and whilst staying at Miss Winter's home on the moors, she falls ill.  The village doctor appears and asks some highly unconventional diagnostic questions.  Does Margaret read a lot of Victorian and gothic fiction?  Mmmhmmm.  She's read Jane Eyre, of course, and Wuthering Heights?   And re-read them multiple times, with liberal doses of Henry James in the interim?  The sage doctor diagnoses her as a very high-strung, overly empathetic and romantic personality type.  "Oh, and you're not eating enough."  He prescribes Arthur Conan Doyle, handing her the Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes, to be taken thrice daily with hearty meals.  

Diane Setterfield is clearly a repeat-reader of the Brontes, but I believe she balanced her gothic diet with Sherlock, because The Thirteenth Tale is a very fine mystery story, and Margaret proves to be a determined sleuth.  I loved reading Jane Eyre at the same time as I read this homage to it.  Let's hear it for plucky English women!  And their books, of course.

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