Monday, 24 November 2008

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield


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.

13 comments:

  1. Everything you say is true, but I still found the book a good read. I decided not to keep it, though.

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  2. This seems like one that you either love..or don't. I happened to find it a really entertaining read but don't press it on anyone since I know the reviews are mixed.

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  3. That quote along seems like too much to me. It reminded me of Jeannette Winterson. No thanks!

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  4. When I saw the title of your entry, I came right over, wondering what you thought. I didn't even want to try it, not being a goth fan at all, but I found what you wrote to be most interesting. Very well-written review.

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  5. I picked this up for Carl's Challenge, tried the opening paragraph, and thought, nope, not right now. I'm not in the mood. I read the excellent Tamsin instead! And now your review confirms that this book really is getting mixed reviews - I know people who have loved it, and people who dislike it. I will give it a try eventually, but I'm not holding much expectation of it wowing me now!!!

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  6. I too was very disappointed with this book. I was only glad that I hadn't bought it - it was a Book Crossing book.

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  7. This book really annoyed me. I felt right from the start that she wasn't writing in her own voice but was trying to do a Charlotte Bronte voice. It definitely split the reading world and those who did love it can get really vehement when they meet those who didn't. I've had more lectures about my bad taste where this book is concerned than any other I can remember.

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  8. Thoughtful review, GC. Without wanting to rave, I enjoyed it and found it a good read, but perhaps I was in an uncritical mood.

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  9. It's interesting how much some of these bestsellers divide people. It's why I hardly ever choose books for other people, it's just too personal. My sons are the exception, we can usually exchange books quite reliably, but if I really love a book I can guarantee my husband will hate it.

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  10. I thought it was a cracking page turner of a read but not great lit by any means. I agree totally about the indistinct voices/ poor charcterisation.

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  11. This is the first negative review I've read about the book so it sure comes as a surprise. I haven't read it (yet?) because I wanted to read more reviews first. Also, I'm really not into horror and a friend of mine told me it terrified her.
    Thanks for writing it.

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  12. this is an odd book. I read and simply loved it but I have met others who really hated it. The book was a huge success in the US but rather bombed here in the UK so not quite sure what to make of that and apparently her publishers rather got their fingers burned. The author has been very quiet since and wonder if she is writing another.

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  13. I agree with you! It was OK, but the characters weren't believable, and it all seemed too heavily constructed, not natural at all. It was a good page turner, but I felt very let down at the end.

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