‘Life is compost. … All my life and all my experience, the events that have befallen me, the people I have known, all my memories, dreams fantasies, everything I have every read, all of that has been chucked onto the compost heap where over time it has rotted down to a dark, rich, organic mulch. The process of cellular breakdown makes it unrecognizable. Other people call it the imagination. I think of it as a compost heap. Every so often I take an idea, plant it in the compost, and wait. It feeds on that black stuff that used to be a life, takes its energy for its own. It germinates. Takes root. Produces shoots. And so on and so forth, until one find day I have a story, or a novel.’ (Vida Winter to Margaret Lea)
Margaret Lea, a young aspiring writer, receives a letter from famous but mysterious novelist Vida Winter with a commission to undertake her biography. Many have sought to uncover even the slightest piece of personal information about the reclusive Miss Winter, but they have all been shunned. There is the additional question of the missing title from Vida Winter’s bibliography, originally called the Thirteen Tales although there were only ever twelve books, a literary mystery which has never been explained. Margaret’s fascination with Vida’s novels leads her to accept and she travels to the Yorkshire home of the reclusive Miss Winter who, with instructions that no questions should be asked, starts to tell her story. In some ways Margaret is as reclusive as Miss Winter, with whom she finds a connection. Interwoven with the story she is transcribing Margaret has to face the pain of her own past and the twin she never knew, but without whom she feels lost.
The separation of twins is no ordinary separation. Imagine surviving an earthquake. When you come to, you find the world unrecognizable. The horizon is in a different place. The sun has changed colour. Nothing remains of the terrain you know. As for you, you are alive. But its not the same as living. It’s no wonder the survivors of such disasters so often wish they had perished with the others.
Along the way we meet a variety of well drawn characters, both past and present, though Vida’s descriptions and Margaret’s discoveries, as the tale is compellingly unravelled. The shadow of Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, a favourite of both Vida Winter and Margaret Lea, runs through the Thirteenth Tale and it is fascinating to trace the connected themes. In this well crafted book Diana Setterfield has produced some wonderful descriptive writing, with the main characters sometimes facing cathartic explorations of life, death, grief and coming to terms with their individual situations.
I thought nothing. The surface of my mind was perfectly still. But under the surface there was a shifting and a stirring. I felt the great swell of the undercurrent. For years a wreck had sat in the depths, a rusting vessel with its cargo of bones. Now it shifted. I had disturbed it, and it created a turbulence that lifted clouds of sand from the seabed, motes of grit swirling wildly in the dark disturbed water. … Then slowly, slowly, the sand resettled and the water returned to its quietness, slowly, slowly. And the bones resettled in the rusting hold. (Margaret Lea)
Miss Winter, on her first meeting with Margaret offers to tell her a ghost story, but one wonders whose ghosts are being exorcised. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, a modern gothic tale, which held me until the end with its surprising and unexpected conclusion.
More information about The Thirteenth Tale and Diana Setterfield can be found on its interactive website.