Review of Diane Setterfield’s "The Thirteenth Tale"

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    What makes us surrender ourselves irrevocably to Gothic tales like  Beauty and the Beast,Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights? What specific amalgamation of literary elements spins such an impressive Gothic net around us that we find ourselves willfully trapped in an ephemeral world filled with dark, untold secrets? Of all the literary genres in existence, Gothic fiction is admittedly my favorite. To this day, I’m still trying to carve out some time to read The Monk  and endeavor to research the history of this rich, stigmatized genre. For centuries, novels like Rebecca,Interview with the Vampire, and certainly this specific book, The Thirteenth Tale, could be inappropriately viewed as being modern “penny dreadfuls,” devoid of any real literary significance.

       Interestingly, The Thirteenth Tale revolves around a erudite book-lover, who has been hired by a certain enigmatic writer named Miss Winters, that has reputably told lies framed as truths to people. At the beginning of the story, Dianne Setterfield expertly provides us a sense of real mystery, as we begin distrusting certain facts within stories that can readily be defined as  lies because we are often limited to a certain character’s perspective of a given situation;therefore, the “truth” is really a lie or what some term a “partial truth.”. In one of my favorite Shakespeare tragedies,Othello,  Iago creates a secondary narrative that he uses to dupe Othello and others, fulfilling his avaricious desire to earn a higher rank above Othello. Within The Thirteenth Tale, Miss Winter’s propensity to weave fanciful lies or tales is symptomatic of the occupation of the writer, who is expected to tell convincing lies in order to entertain and earn a living,yet she is also weaving lies in order to elude people from discovering the true story of her life.

             For the main character though, her suspicions about the veracity of Miss Winter’s life story are examined throughout the whole of the book in what becomes the secondary narrative for most of the book. Interestingly, the principal narrative is detached from the present, and restively exists in Miss Winter’s perplexedly disoriented mind. The main character resembles the reader who scrutinizes the details of Miss Winter’s life story that becomes the predominant plot for the story. In another recent Gothic novel,Interview with the Vampire, Louis’ woebegone tale about his transformation into a vampire also becomes the dominant story, whereas his actual interview with the young journalist becomes reversely secondary.

     One of my main scruples with this story revolves around the lack of success Diane Setterfield has with keeping us immersed in the story itself. Sometimes, the convoluted details of the novel become far too distracting from character development. Also, much of the dialogue between Miss Winters and the main narrator become a bit too pedantic, as if the author began to overlook their significance in the story.   Sometimes, the main narrator is also a bit too passive, and very uninteresting when it comes to how she interacts with Miss Winter’s questionable past story, filled to the brim with archetypal details of various Gothic stories. Essentially, Diane Setterfield’s story becomes steeped with too many allusions and plot digressions about “the nature of  phonetic language.” Basically, it began to suffer from the tragic Moby Dick syndrome once it gets a bit too carried away with explicitly instructing readers about the philosophical implications of language. In these parts, Diane Setterfield drops her storytelling pen and begins writing like a scholar who spends far too much time simply explaining these elements. Shakespeare was able to address the philosophical implications of language and its mystical powers subtly in many plays like The Tempest  and Macbeth.  If Dianne Setterfield wrote a Shakespeare play, she would have clearly divulged the unmentioned literary mechanics that enrapture audiences. Ironically, as she expends effort to tell us these things in a story format, she has neglected her task to tell an engrossing tale . Weirdly, The Thirteenth Tale  often reads too much like a dissertation on how Gothic novels work, rather than being a successful Gothic story.

    In the end, I still find this book to be charming, while it also enervates me with all the extraneous details that really should not be so apparent to the reader. Its main problem is the fact that the book exhaustively tries to cover every classical element of the English Gothic novel, while forgetting the importance of telling a compelling story filled with enough ambiguity to pique our imaginations, and greatly enrich our minds. For fans of Gothic novels, this book is a great story to read in order to understand the mechanics of the Gothic novel, but don’t expect anything as subtly rich as either Jane Eyre  or Wuthering Heights.  To me, the one author that has managed to write the true modern Gothic novel is Anne Rice, with The Witching Hour.

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