The Thirteenth Tale drew me in almost from the first page. The narrator, Margaret Lea, is a young woman who works with her father selling rare books, and who lives herself more in the world of books than the world of people. Her life has been shadowed by a family tragedy that she discovered only by accident, a secret that her mother refuses to ever speak of. But she is drawn out of her own world and into another, even more troubled life, when highly acclaimed writer Vida Winter hires Margaret to listen to, and write, the true story of Winter’s life — the one story Winter, a master of self-invention, has never told anyone.
The story the aged writer tells Margaret could come straight off the pages of a nineteenth-century Gothic novel — and, in fact, a copy of Jane Eyre keeps floating around the story, turning up here and there to remind the reader exactly what kind of tale we’re being told. In terms of novels I’ve read recently, The Thirteenth Tale is most remeniscent of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger (and, interestingly, The Little Stranger would have been another good title for this book). It lacks The Little Stranger‘s strong sense of being rooted in a particular historical era, though; the time setting of The Thirteenth Tale seems intentionally vague, as if this is a nineteenth-century story drawn into the modern world, but not pinned down to any particular decade.
Vida Winter unveils, episode by episode, a chilling tale of madness, incest, child abuse and neglect, and really just about every tragic thing you could think of, all taking place in a huge, decaying English manor house. When Margaret goes to Winter’s childhood home to investigate for herself, she discovers not answers but more questions.
One thing I found this novel did much better than The Little Stranger (to which I can’t help comparing it) was resolution. Both novels play with many of the same themes, incluing the possibility of supernatural activity — each could be described a ghost story as well as a mystery. But The Thirteenth Tale really does provide the reader with a conclusion that explains many, if not all, of the novel’s bizarre events, and it’s a truly satisfying and surprising twist — the kind of reveal that makes sense in the light of what we’ve been told, and also, once revealed, makes sense of what has gone before.
I found this thoroughly engaging and enjoyable, and would recommend it to anyone who simply likes a good, if occasionally creepy, story.