The Thirteenth Tale, written by Dianne Setterfield, surprised me in two major ways, and as such, ended up being entirely AWESOME.
First, the title, I don’t think, does it much justice at all. It sort of makes it sound like a cheesy young adult book that will turn into a sprawling series that you can’t keep up with, and which you’ll read somewhat guiltily. That’s not the case at all – the title of the novel references the title of a collection of short stories written by one of the fictional main characters. It becomes important because only twelve short stories were actually published in the fictional collection, and characters and readers alike, are left to ponder what the thirteenth tale was. You find out in the end, but I’m not going to tell you because I think you should read this book for yourself. It’s really good.
Second, the novel was incredibly gothic. I was surprised because I had picked up this book for years at Chapters, read a couple pages from the beginning and then put it back down. The writing style is the sort of stuffy, classic English that you find in Jane Eyre and Mansfield Park. And perhaps this makes me a terrible English major (or, as I like to think, a less stereotypical female English major), but I’m not really a big Brontë or Austen fan. There I said it. I can appreciate Jane Eyre if only for its gothic elements: the crazy wife locked up in the attic who perishes in a fire? Spooky! But when Jane then marries Mr. Rochester I’m just not on board. He was kind of an awful person and though he’s now blind and sorry for keeping his wife hostage, I just can’t really get over that. That’s the sort of stuff that serial killers do, am I right? (I am envisioning all the angry comments I’m going to get on this blog from die-hard romantics… Alas, such is life.) In any case, because the writing style didn’t immediately grab me, I never did buy The Thirteenth Tale. I’m glad that I had to read it for book club though, because it turned out to be amazing. If you’re like me, and have trouble getting past the first chapter, stick with it, it’s totally worth it.
As it turned out, the book’s greatest strength is that the writing style mimicked that of 19th century authors. Throughout the novel the characters allude to gothic novels and the plot draws on gothic novel conventions and in so-doing, The Thirteenth Tale becomes a gothic itself. The events in the novel mirror those in the works of Poe (characters burning alive, and finding skeletons buried underground), Conan Doyle (the entire thing is a mystery), and the Brontë sisters (long walks on creepy moors, recluses living in the house, and some seriously mentally disturbed characters). Had I read Middlemarch or The Woman in White I’m sure I would be able to pick out the references to those Victorian serials and the gothic elements within them as well (though I’m glad I haven’t because they’re SO LONG). Conforming to the gothic conventions of the novels it references, The Thirteenth Tale contains ghosts (that aren’t really ghosts, à la Northanger Abbey), arson, and mysterious deaths and disappearances that serve to creep the reader right out. But like any good gothic, the real fear is in the mind, either of the character who imagines a ghost, or resulting from the darkly disturbed and twisted minds of the characters. The character Charlie is terrifying because he’s so mentally unwell. The ghost is eerie because as a 21st century reader we know it can’t be a ghost but something corporal and yet equally as irrational, and thus even more unsettling.
The novel is so much more than just its gothic conventions of course, but to me, the gothic elements are reason enough to read it. As a Poe fan, I highly endorse this novel. I’ve never read a novel before that contained such vivid descriptions of such creepy events, and that made me feel so queasy. It’s not Saw creepy. It’s subtler, easier to digest, and ultimately more gothic. It’s just really good.