I'm beginning to think that I should avoid books which other people rave about. This is the second time recently that I've been disappointed, first by Ghostwalk (Rebecca Stott), and now by Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. I was looking forward to the promised layered, gothic tale – elderly writer sends for relatively unknown biographer, with the promise that she will divulge the story of her life as long as the biographer asks no questions, country house destroyed by fire, wild child etc. Reading the prologue, I wondered whether I would get through it all, since the narrator's voice and that of the elderly writer seemed to be identical, and both given to an annoying trait of high-flown literary generalisation which seems to be creeping in to more and more modern novels, as here:
My gripe is not with lovers of truth but with truth herself. What succour, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story? What good is truth, as 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?Now, I admit there is nothing really wrong with this per se, but you can have too much of it, and there is certainly too much in the opening pages of this book. Fortunately, Setterfield then embarks fairly briskly on the story, though I found myself skipping some purplish passages. Thus I came rapidly to my second problem with it – as the story unfolds, I simply do not believe in the character of Vida Winter. I don't want to explain why, since that would give away too much, but all the characters are stereotypes, lacking development and individuality. I should have loved a narrator whose life was completely built upon books but sadly, I didn't care. The Thirteenth Tale is strewn with references to other works such as Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes, The Castle of Otranto - if you want to immerse yourself in gothic atmosphere try Lady Audley's Secret or The Monk; this one is really train reading, in my opinion.