The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
"For me, to see is to read. It has always been that way." --Margaret Lea
I don't remember hearing much buzz about this book. In fact, I can't even remember how I heard about it. It's possible that I saw it at the library or the bookstore and was mildly intrigued by the title, since I do have a liking for the number thirteen. In any case, my good friend / library fairy the bibliophile sent it down to the main library to be held on my behalf, and I read it a few weeks ago. I really, really liked it.
The narrator of the book is Margaret Lea, a young unmarried woman who works with her father in his bookshop, writes biographies as a hobby, and loves to read most of all things in life. She is a very cool character, and the author makes no apologies for Margaret's plainness, lack of romance, or bookish qualities. On the contrary, it is these things that make Margaret such a compelling narrator. The first few chapters, in which Margaret details her life and her love of books, were nearly perfect. There were portions that rang so true that I wanted to absorb them into my skin, where they'd remain as invisible tattoos, helping to define me. That probably sounds crazy or creepy, but it felt as if the author had found that undefinable feeling I get in my chest when I really connect with a book, and had put it down on paper.
"I have always been a reader; I have read at every stage of my life, and there has never been a time when reading was not my greatest joy. And yet I cannot pretend that the reading I have done in my adult years matches in its impact on my soul the reading I did as a child. I still believe in stories. I still forget myself when I am in the middle of a good book. Yet it is not the same. Books are, for me, it must be said, the most important thing; what I cannot forget is that there was a time when they were at once more banal and more essential than that. When I was a child, books were everything. And so there is in me, always, a nostalgic yearning for the lost pleasure of books."
She also addresses another concept that I have always loved to roll around in my mind:
"Lives--dead ones--are just a hobby of mine. My real work is in the bookshop. My job is not to sell the books--my father does that--but too look after them. Every so often I take out a volume and read a page or two. After all, reading is looking after in a manner of speaking. Though they're not old enough to be valuable for their age alone, nor important enough to be sought after by collectors, my charges are dear to me, even if, as often as not, they are as dull on the inside as on the outside. No matter how banal the contents, there is always something that touches me. For someone now dead once thought these words significant enough to write them down.
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. Yet for some there is an exception to annihilation. For in the books they write they continute to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. 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.
As one tends the graves of the dead, so I tend the books. I clean them, do minor repairs, keep them in good order. And every day I open a volume or two, read a few lines or pages, allow the voices of the forgotten dead to resonate inside my head. Do they sense it, these dead writers, when their books ar read? Does a pinprick of light appear in their darkness? Is their soul stirred by the feather touch of another mind reading theirs? I do hope so. For it must be very lonely being dead."
When Margaret is recruited to write the biography of one of the world's premiere writers, the mysterious and reclusive Vida Winter, the story takes a turn away from books, but The Thirteenth Tale doesn't suffer for it. The novel alternates scenes of Miss Winter's life--told as a third person account of the lives of the odd and often violent Angelfield family--with "real-time" scenes of Margaret interacting with Miss Winter and eventually investigating different angles of Miss Winter's story.
It is a rare book that makes both the reader in me and the fiction writer in me nod and emphatically agree with statements it makes, and The Thirteenth Tale is such a book. Besides the already-mentioned spot-on lines about reading, I particularly love this piece of dialogue between Miss Winter and Margaret:
" 'Life is compost.'
'You think that a strange thing to say, but it's true. All my life and all my experiences, the events that have befallen me, the people I have known, all my memories, dreams, fantasies, everything I have ever read, all of that has been chucked onto the compost heap, where over time it has rotted down to a dark, rich, organic mulch. The process of cellular breakdown makes it unrecognizable. Other people call it the imagination. I think of it as a compost heap. Every so often I take an idea, plant it in the compost, and wait. It feeds on that black stuff that used to be a life, takes its energy for its own. It germinates. Takes root. Produces shoots. And so on and so forth, until one fine day I have a story, or a novel.'
I nodded, liking the analogy.
'Readers,' continued Miss Winter, 'are fools. They believe all writing is autobiographical. And so it is, but not in the way they think. The writer's life needs time to rot away before it can be used to nourish a work of fiction. It must be allowed to decay.' "
All of the characters in the book--even the peripheral ones--are written very vividly. The whole novel has great pacing and a good measure of quiet what-happens-next suspense. Calling a book a "page turner" is almost cliche, but the phrase actually applies to this book. I was enveloped in it, just as Margaret and her father were often enveloped in the books they read on slow afternoons in the book shop:
"After lunch, when we have finished the unpacking and the cataloging and the shelving and we have no customers, we sit reading as usual. It is late autumn, it is raining and the windows have misted up. In the background is the hiss of the gas heater; we hear the sound without hearing it for, side by side, together and miles apart, we are deep in our books."
One night while about halfway through the book, I decided to read "for a little while." I opened the book at 8:00 and didn't resurface until after midnight. I had no awareness of the passage of time, of really much of anything outside the story that was unfolding on the pages. That, to me, is the mark of an excellent book, a book that hearkens back to the all-encompassing reading experience of childhood. I felt a little like Margaret, who goes to bed promptly at 8:00 every night with a book in hand: "Time was of the essence. For at eight o'clock the world came to an end. It was reading time."
"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 shadows on the bedroom wall and the rain taps at the window with its long fingernails? No. When fear and cold 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." -- Vida Winter
In a story that revolves around secrets and half-truths, lies and the things that are often kept hidden, a twist ending was pretty much required, and Setterfield definitely delivers. I've read enough books that I usually get an inkling of what's going to happen when I know there's a twist coming. This makes it even more enjoyable when a story is able to keep me guessing until the very end, and The Thirteenth Tale did so. It's not a book with a perfect, pat ending, but I think that works in its favor. This is not a story that could be satisfactorily wrapped up and tied with a neat bow.
"I read old novels. The reason is simple: I prefer proper endings. Marriages and deaths, noble sacrifices and miraculous restorations, tragic separations and unhoped-for reunions, great falls and dreams fulfilled; these, in my view, constitute an ending worth the wait. They should come after adventures, perils, dangers and dilemmas, and wind everything up nice and neatly. Endings like this are to be found more commonly in old novels than new ones, so I read old novels.
Contemporary literature is a world I know little of. My father had taken me to task on this topic many times during our daily talks about books. He reads as much as I do, but more widely, and I have great respect for his opinions. He has described in precise, measured words the beautiful desolation he feels at the close of novels where the message is that there is no end to human suffering, only endurance. He has spoken of endings that are muted, but which echo longer in the memory than louder, more explosive denouements. He has explained why it is that ambiguity touches his heart more nearly than the death and marriage style of finish that I prefer.
During these talks, I listen with the gravest attention and nod my head, but I always end up continuing in my old habits. Not that he blames me for it. There is one thing on which we are agreed: There are too many books in the world to read in a single lifetime; you have to draw the line somewhere."
Margaret's ending and Miss Winter's ending blend a bit of the old novel approach with a bit of the contemporary novel approach. I won't give anything away, but when you draw your line, I think you might want to keep The Thirteenth Tale on the "to be read" side of it.
Labels: Diane Setterfield