Thoughts on “The Thirteenth Tale” by Diane Setterfield

Sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover. I went to an estate sale some years back that advertised having a large selection of books. Clearly, the person who had passed was a serious reader based upon the sheer volume of books for sale, most of which were nice hardcovers. Scanning through the stacks, the cover of this book caught my eye. The brief blurb on the jacket confirmed that this should be worth the couple dollars. Also of interest, the title page was inscribed. I guess a friend of the deceased had given this book as a gift. Kind of added to the overall mystique of the book.

The premise of the story is that a woman who is an antiquarian book dealer gets hired by a reclusive author, who is nearing the end of her life, to write her biography. As is to be expected, many dark secrets abound, and the tale unravels in a gothic atmosphere that works really well.

As a bibliophile who loves used and antiquarian bookstores, the early description drew me right into the story.

Rising from the stairs, I stepped into the darkness of the shop. I didn’t need the light to find my way. I know the shop the way you know the places of your childhood. Instantly the smell of leather and old paper was soothing. I ran my fingertips along the spines, like a pianist along his keyboard. Each book has its own individual note: the grainy, linen-covered spine of Daniel’s History of Map Making, the cracked leather of Lakunin’s minutes from the meetings of the St. Petersburg Cartographic Academy; a well-worn folder that contains his maps, hand-drawn, hand-colored. You could blindfold me and position me anywhere on the three floors of this shop and I could tell you from the books under my fingertips where I was.

(p. 12)

When reading a gothic novel, even a modern one, there are some tropes that you come to expect, such as the old, decaying house. Ms. Setterfield uses this image well throughout the book as a symbol for mental illness and psychological decline.

On the first day of silence, and as if nothing had ever happened to interrupt it, the house picked up again its long, slow project of decay. Small things first: Dirt began to seep from every crevice in every object in every room. Surfaces secreted dust. Windows covered themselves with the first fine layer of grime. All of Hester’s changes had been superficial. They required daily attention to be maintained. And as the Missus’s cleaning schedules at first wavered, and then crashed, the real, permanent nature of the house began to reassert itself. The time came when you couldn’t pick anything up without feeling the old cling of grime on your fingers.

(p. 197)

I don’t want to give away too much regarding this novel. Suffice to say that I enjoyed it. It was a quick read, the story was engaging, it was well-written, and there were some interesting metaphors and correspondences. Bottom line, no matter what type of reader you are, you’re likely to find something you’ll like in this book.

Thanks for stopping by!

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Thoughts on “The Thirteenth Tale” by Diane Setterfield

  1. Anytime dirt seeps and surfaces secrete, count me in!

    • LOL – yeah, my kind of story, for sure. Lots of references to Jane Eyre, which I never read. Will have to bump that one up on the list. Happy Holidays, Jerry. Stay safe.

  2. Hi Jeff – what a good find – I’ve been meaning to read The Thirteenth Tale. Thanks for the summary and your thoughts – I’m glad you enjoyed it!