Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Review of 'The Thirteenth Tale'

Alright well, let's see:

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

How much of a review can I give of this Book without giving away the secrets? Well, it's going to be hard to do, so if you don't want the book ruined for you, perhaps you'd better not read any further.
With that in mind...

Imagine that Catherine Earnshaw sat down one dark and stormy night to tell her life story to Jane Eyre, and that Jane is going to make this story into a book. And then imagine that at the end of the story, after everything we've learned about Cathy's life, it turns out that Cathy isn't Cathy - she's Heathcliff in disguise. Hard to get your mind around? Yeah, so is this book. But that's ok.

Mixing elements of Romantic Gothic literature, plot elements of the Bronte's novels, and a good dose of modern psychology of siblings, Diane Setterfield has created a novel that is a heck of a lot of fun to read. The prose is a bit stilted now and then (could it be the modern urge to turn every little feeling into a metaphor? Or maybe the language comes from reading one too many Victorian novels...) but regardless, the book - by virtue of its structure - is as much fun as a rubic's cube.

We begin with an old writer (the iconic Story Teller/Witch figure) who narrates a twisted life story ('the truth') to a mousy antique book seller (a.k.a. stereotypical librarian) biographer. The story begins with Twins, a pair of girls born of the incestuous liason between the brother and sister of a deranged, delapidated family (Hello, Catherine and Heathcliff). The twins are raised by a Housekeeper (Mrs. Fairfax, is that you?) and a Gardner (why, I do believe that cantankerous caretaker may have gone by the name of Ben in the Secret Garden), and are later taken in hand by the governess (no, it's not Jane Eyre; closer to the unamed governess of The Turn of the Screw) who, along with the Doctor (Holmes cameo?) use the girls as a science experiment. A few things go wrong, the virtuous governess disappears (literally), and the twins lose their Uncle/father as well. (Their aunt/mother had already died in a lunatic asylum.) Then the Housekeeper passes away. Are the deaths accidental, natural, murder? Who knows - but something weird is going on - and it's up to the emotional ice-berg of a biographer to uncover the mystery behind our (semi) reliable narrator, as the mystery of the Twins relates to her own mystery.

This book draws on many elements of Victorian/Gothic/Romantic literature to tell its story: a dilapidated house, an isolated estate, a pair of weird children who may be possessed by something sinister, incest, suicide, arson, mad people being kept in attics, numerous suspicious deaths and accidents, governesses having affairs, orphans, mirrors, ghosts, etc... all of it done very well through the agency of fautly narration. But there are some things that don't quite work for me:

First, it's one thing to borrow from the classics (that's why they're classic) but enough is enough, and sometimes too much. The reason Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Turn of the Screw, The Lady in White, The Secret Garden, Christabel, Porphyria's Lover, The Moonstone, Carmilla, (for me, anyway) is because there is one unified secret we are trying to get at (not thirty!) Now, I'm not saying there aren't mysteries within mysteries (there certainly are), but the books manage to stick to one idea very well. I suppose there might, arguably, be one central mystery to The Thirteenth Tale (i.e. that the twins aren't twins, but triplets) - but with the complication of the biographer's mystery (and the time shifts), the novel becomes increasingly difficult to follow. At least, by classic standards. This sifts it into the unenviable realm of Walpole's Castle of Otranto - and we don't want to go there....

My second beef with this book is more theoretical than structural. Perhaps it's just me, but I continue to see a certain symbolism in the angry/mad twin that harkens to Bertha Mason. Now, I have never read Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, (and admittedly I am an ardent Jane suporter - so bite me) but I cannot get over this current notion that the Mad Woman in the Attic needs our sympathy and restoration. She's mad. That doesn't make her evil, but it does make her a murder none-the-less, and therefore dangerous - why do we need to rescue her from the fire that she set? I know that sounds harsh - I suppose the ardent feminist in me argues that Bertha is a representation of everything passionate and powerful about the female that males fear and so she has to be locked up in the attic - yadayadayada... But still. Really? Why do we insist on this? Mad men get locked up too - I don't think it's the feminine - I think it's the madness that's at issue here. I liked the fact that the third girl wanted to rescue the good twin (are we supposed to read latent lesbianism here? I wasn't sure...) and let the bad twin burn. It doesn't bother me. But then, the mad one lives (?)...argh.

Alright. And for the sake of having three things:

The ending. Ok, so it doesn't technically break the rule of good mystery literature (i.e. that the murder can't be someone we've never met before - deus ex machina murder, heheh) but the narrator being the third girl and bastard offspring of the brother?....that made me a little ansty. It's not unfeasible. I was expecting that third person to be their mother, perhaps. To me this seems more feasible than a character who hasn't really been introduced before (technically yes, but not really). It seemed too out of left field. But maybe I was just reading with too many preconcieved notions.

Overall, I really enjoyed it. I give it 4 stars!


Jenny said...

Stephanie, I'd like to marry you so that you can write book reviews to me for the rest of our lives ... sort of like love letters, but much, much better.

If you don't want me to say mildly uncomfortable things like that, you should stop writing such excellent book reviews. :-P

caityj said...

Wow, after that review, I don't feel like there's much more I can add : ).

So I did, actually, through interesting circumstances, manage to read The Thirteenth Tale (picked it up at one house, dropped it off at another). I agree with much of what you said, Steph. The characters were interesting and likable (even the twisted ones). I did quickly grow tired of Margaret's dilemma, i.e. dead twin-ghost-shadow-stalker, and sometimes the lengthy elaborations on every twitch of the hand or bat of the eye made me feel like I was reading Les Miserables again.

Other than that, I enjoyed it.

Oh yeah, and HI STEPH!