frontier reads

Since Saturday was Halloween and today is Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, it seems like a good day for a little mysterious story involving ghosts: The Thirteenth Tale.

I found this book on the library book sale shelves for $2 and it was in perfect condition. The spine is not even creased or a single page bent. It has an awesome Washington Square Press Reader’s Guide, Questions and Interview with Diane Setterfield. There is always something about a novel that is about reading and writing.

The novel is the story of a famous author Vida Winter set in Yorkshire. The beginning of the book gives us a glimpse into the mystery surrounding the author whose name means Life/Death. It isn’t even her real name. News reporters have vied for years to get the real story of the life of Vida Winter, but she has told so many different stories about her life, all of which parallel the current novel in publication.

book cover

As the reader, my quest became to find out the truth. Diane Setterfield does not make it easy for the reader, though. In a letter, Vida has written to Margaret Lea and tells us all what she thinks of truth.

“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 fold 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.”

In the same letter, Vida also says, “Reporters are hacks. We writers are the real thing.”

I started to picture Vida as a curmudgeonly Maggie Smith (the Downton Abbey matriarch). So then I started wondering if as the character of Margaret developed she could be pictured as Michelle Dockery. My casting would have been perfect for the movie!

The polite little banter between Vida and Margaret is witty and fun. When they first meet you see the depth of the plot. Margaret had not previously read a single book of Vida Winter’s despite it being up for debate if her books have outsold the Bible. The start of their relationship is great.

“You have given nineteen different versions of your life story to journalists in the last two years alone.”

She [Vida] shrugged. “It’s my profession. I’m a storyteller.”

“I am a biographer, I work with facts.”

Little do we know the character of Margaret is also searching to confront her own truths. So we will get a glimpse into the parallel but distant lives of Margaret and Vida. Vida takes us deep into the stories of Isabelle, Adeline and Emmeline.

There, a ghost, a governess, and a topiary garden spin a tale for us. Together, Margaret and Vida battle the ghosts that have haunted them in order to be able to confront their own truths. You can read a bit of Brontë and du Maurier heroines in both of the characters. Margaret has some of Jane Eyre’s repressed emotions also.

The most wonderful artful aspect of Diane’s writing is how believable the odd characters become from their births to their ______ (I won’t spoil the story for you!).

My heart rate picked up at several of the spooky scenes when Margaret was trying to verify Vida’s thirteenth tale (supposedly her real true story). I cried at parts with the characters. I rejoiced once also. It really is a book you cannot put down or move on from easily. The odd thing that even Diane can’t figure out is sales of The Thirteenth Tale were exponentially higher in the United States than in England.

The Thirteenth Tale was acquired by Heyday Films and adapted for television by the award-winning playwright and scriptwriter, Christopher Hampton. Starring Vanessa Redgrave and Olivia Colman, it was filmed in 2013 in North Yorkshire for BBC2. I am willing to watch anything starring Vanessa Redgrave.

Vanessa Redgrave’s character in the show looks so much like Diane Setterfield!

Dianne Setterfield

It is really hard to believe this is Diane Setterfield’s debut novel. She grew up in Theale or Reading depending on which interview you read. She then went on the University of Bristol. Her specialty is twentieth-century French literature. How romantic is that?!? After leaving academia she was mentored by novelist Jim Crace.

She spent five years writing and finalizing The Thirteenth Tale. In an interview for The Guardian she discussed how hard it was to finish The Thirteenth Tale.

“After about three years, I had index cards all over the living-room floor, and my husband used to come home and find me sobbing over the index cards,” Setterfield recalls. “But actually index cards aren’t the way forward. I did learn that. You have to relax, write what you write. It sounds easy but it’s really, really hard. One of the things it took me longest to learn was to trust the writing process.”

She also talked about her obsession with reading which was quite funny and true. I would love to get to be a guest at one of her book clubs!

“I’ve got a friend who’s an addiction doctor — she’s in my book group and she has a checklist of the signs and she thinks, yes, in our book group we are actually addicted,” Setterfield says. “You organise your life around your habit. You feel panicked if you imagine you are going to be deprived of your habit.”

She recalls the first book she read that lacked a happy ending, a story about a cat and her kittens, all of whom died. “That was one of the most devastating emotional experiences of my childhood,” she says, with only half a smile.

With my own book club, I also became addicted. When I had to move away from my book club, I felt like I was losing a part of myself. I still feel depressed each month when they are meeting without me. My book club was a part of me and most of them are the only people who really understood who I am as a person.

Diane’s blog is funny and quirky. Reading it makes me feel as though I am on holiday to England. Her recent blog post about “How Many Readers Does It Take To Make A Book Group” was a great little read. I do wish she blogged more. She wrote another novel last year which was not as highly received. Despite the reviews, I cannot help wanting to read it. Maybe because I didn’t want The Thirteenth Tale to end.

Liz Hart

Liz Hart

Liz Hart is a former Tulsan who now lives in Colorado with her husband and children. She writes about her life and books of all genres that she loves on her daily blog,