The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is a masterpiece of contemporary gothic fiction. Setterfield, a former academic, weaves an intriguing tale of an antique bookseller/aspiring biographer and an elusive author who is ready to finally tell the truth for an authentic autobiography. What unfolds is majestic, horrific, heartbreaking and redeeming. I won’t spoil the plot but there is a nod to the Bronte’s as well as other classics of gothic fiction. This book is for the average book lover and the erudite bibliophile alike and I promise you, reader, that you will not be disappointed in having read it.
Setterfield’s language is direct at the beginning, ethereal as the mystery unfolds, and masterful as the reader becomes more invested in the characters and the work itself. To call this a pastiche would be a disservice to Ms. Setterfield’s talent as this is extremely gripping and to use a cliché “a real page-turner”. There is an intricacy as the plot unfolds with a mysterious letter, a frame if you will, much like Wuthering Heights that allows a situation to ruminate before the real story begins. The main characters have more in common than one would think at first glance and this heightens the suspense of the plot and the emotional connection between the characters. The layers of shocking twists and truths amongst tragedy are not simplistic nor can anyone guess at what is to come. Setterfield does a great job of not only heightening suspense but delivering it in copious amounts throughout the novel. There is one part at the end, which again I won’t spoil for those who haven’t read it, that I have tried to figure out but I just cannot. Perhaps this puzzling plot development merits a second read for a true appreciation of what Setterfield is attempting with this character and it’s big reveal at the end.
I read this last Spring and was so anxious to finish I just ate it up. I would recommend this book to anyone wishing to read a contemporary example of gothic fiction done well. The subject matter toward the end can get a bit hairy for conservative readers as there is domestic violence and incest that drives certain parts of the plot. However, these instances are not so graphic(as far as the incest is concerned) to make anyone too squeamish.
I am not-so-patiently awaiting the second novel which is forthcoming from Diane Setterfield. Whether or not that work will also be in the gothic vein has not been revealed but I have high expectations for her next work on the basis of such a stellar debut novel.