Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale is the first book in ages to keep me up nights reading. And it is an unlikely candidate for this honor. It is a woman’s book, and all the important characters are women.
The story centers on the unlikely friendship of two women: one, an elderly grand dame of British writing; the other, a bookshop dweller who is hired to write the older woman’s biography. Margaret Lea, the bookshop maven and narrator, leads a life I would dearly love. She live above her father’s bookshop, reading whatever she wants, whenever she wants. If there were only room for gardening. But there is!
The violence that often drives plots is buried in the distant past, glimpsed only gradually—as if to give you time to become accustomed to it. Like all good Gothics, this novel is replete with British aristocracy, wealth, decay, depravity, and true love—although the later is found in unlikely places.
But mostly, it is the language that enraptures. Setterfield does not make the mistake of many writers who use beautiful language. Her eloquence never knocks you out of the story. Instead, her natural rhythms and distinctive voices only enhance the story, drawing you deeper into it from the first word. Then she uses language to ease you back into “reality” rather than leaving you hungering when the story ends.