Book Review: THE THIRTEENTH TALE by Diane Sutterfield

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Book Cover for The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Features a stack of books with a red ribbon bookmark hanging out of one.

WOW. Where do I start? This gothic novel was recommended to me in mid-spring by an agent who loved it and who currently has the full MS for my first gothic suspense. I’d not yet read it, but I added it to my ever-growing TBR. I’ve since seen a host of others recommend it, so two days ago, I finally set out to read it.

I was instantly drawn in by the WRITING. The writing is beautiful! It’s captivating, it’s compelling, it’s descriptive. Setterfield’s lyrical diction is woven throughout the entire story and there were so many atmospheric scenes described so eloquently that it left me breathless. I highlighted so many gorgeous passages it was hard to choose which ones to add here!

“The window was a large expanse of dark glass and in the centre of it, my ghost, darkly transparent, was staring in at me. Her world was not unlike my own: the pale outline of a desk the other side of the glass, and further back a deeply buttoned armchair placed inside the circle of light cast by a standard lamp. But where my chair was red, hers was grey; and where my chair stood on an Indian rug, surrounded by light-gold walls, her chair hovered spectrally in an undefined, endless plane of darkness in which vague forms, like waves, seemed to shift and breathe.”

The Thirteenth Tale is a story within a story. The main character, Margaret, is asked to complete a biography of a famous and dying author, Vida Winter. Vida is well-known for her lies about her own life, growing up at the Angelfield estate, preferring privacy over prying ears and flappy mouths. Margaret is skeptical, and almost dismisses Miss Winter’s request because she refuses to fall for more lies, but something compels her to take on the task, an intangible connection with the author. An understanding of sorts. Miss Winters promises to tell her the truth this time. Soon she is enrapt by Miss Winter’s story and even grows fond of her subject. Margaret sits and listens patiently for weeks while the story is told, but she’s not allowed to ask questions. No cheating, no looking ahead, and no questions. Margaret has a secretive, heartbreaking past of her own to which she draws connections in Miss Winter’s story, and the more she hears, the more she’s entranced by the words, the descriptions, the meanings. The wonder. The similar scars in her life and that of her subject’s.

Part of the story is through Margaret’s point-of-view, and others are through her interpretations of Miss Winter’s point-of-view. She has been commissioned to tell Miss Winter’s story, but first she must listen to it, and then based on her notes and memories of Miss Winter’s words, she writes the story. There is still a distinct difference in character voice between the two. Furthermore, there are some diary entries painstakingly read and transcribed by Margaret, the original author being a governess who, for a time, helped raise the children at Angelfield. The voice that shines through in her diary entries is still different than Miss Winter’s and Margaret’s. The point being, Setterfield is skilled at penning character voicey-ness seamlessly throughout the pages.

I thoroughly enjoy reading stories that are masterfully descriptive. I want to see the settings and people in my mind as I’m reading. I want to hear their voices as if they’re talking to me. And that’s exactly what I got in The Thirteenth Tale.

Something I also really loved was that there was so much about writing, reading, and books, history, research, and authors. Being a writer myself, I connected well with the two main characters.

“Opening the book, I inhaled. The smell of old books, so sharp, so dry you can taste it.”

“My study throngs with characters waiting to be written. Imaginary people, anxious for a life, who tug at my sleeve, crying, “Me next! Go on! My turn!” I have to select. And once I have chosen, the others lie quiet for ten months or a year, until I come to the end of the story, and the clamour starts up again.”

The overall tone was historical, ancestral, secretive, gothic-y, mysterious, and spooky, with hints of a scandalousness that led to all kinds of disarray. I obsess over anything that’s gothic. The more ghosty and historical and creepy the vibe, the better–and the descriptions here are no exception. I want to be at the manors, I want to see inside their walls, I want to know what’s hiding in the dark corners. Add in anything to do with ancestors, and I’m absolutely hooked. (I love the topic and have done loads of genealogical research within my own family and for others. There’s just something about old stories, or guessing what could have happened in their lives that just fascinates me!)

“There was no magic behind the silence: it was the soft furnishings that did it. Overstuffed sofas were piled with velvet cushions; there were upholstered footstools, chaise lounges and armchairs; tapestries hung on the walls and were used as throws over upholstered furniture. Every floor was carpeted, every carpet overlaid with rugs. The damask that draped the windows also baffled the walls. Just as blotting paper absorbs ink, so all this wool and velvet absorbed sound, with one difference: where blotting paper takes up only excess ink, the fabric of the house seemed to suck in the very essence of the words we spoke.” … “The other rooms were thick with the corpses of suffocated words: here in the library you could breathe. Instead of the fabric, it was a room made of wood. There were floorboards underfoot, shutters at the tall windows, and the walls were lined with solid oak shelves.”

From the back cover:

Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise–she doesn’t know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter’s dozens of novels.

Late one night, while pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.
As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter’s account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story. In the end, both women have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets. As well as the ghosts that haunt them still.

I really enjoyed this book. Again, the thing that I loved most was the incredible writing! And this was her debut novel! Wow!

Now if only I could figure out where to stream it in Canada, I could watch the film adaptation! Have you seen it and read the book? What did you think?

You can find out more about Diane Setterfield by visiting her website at She’s also on Twitter @DianeSetterfie1

Published by kathleenfoxx

Author of domestic thrillers and gothic horror.

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