Settle down to enjoy a rousing good ghost story with Diane Setterfield's debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale. Setterfield has rejuvenated the genre with this closely plotted, clever foray into a world of secrets, confused identities, lies, and half-truths. She never cheats by pulling a rabbit out of a hat; this atmospheric story hangs together perfectly.
There are two heroines here: Vida Winter, a famous author, whose life story is coming to an end, and Margaret Lea, a young, unworldly, bookish girl who is a bookseller in her father's shop. Vida has been confounding her biographers and fans for years by giving everybody a different version of her life, each time swearing it's the truth. Because of a biography that Margaret has written about brothers, Vida chooses Margaret to tell her story, all of it, for the first time. At their initial meeting, the conversation begins:
"You have given nineteen different versions of your life story to journalists in the last two years alone."
She [Vida] shrugged. "It's my profession. I'm a storyteller."
"I am a biographer, I work with facts."
The game is afoot and Margaret must spend some time sorting out whether or not Vida is actually ready to tell the whole truth. There is more here of Margaret discovering than of Vida cooperating wholeheartedly, but that is part of Vida's plan.
Margaret has a story of her own: she was one of conjoined twins and her sister died so that Margaret could live. She feels an otherworldly aura sometimes or a yearning for a part of her that is forever missing. Vida's story involves two wild girls--feral twins (is she one of them?)--who would have been better off being suckled by wolves. Instead, their mother and uncle, involved in things too unsavory to contemplate, combine to neglect them woefully. There's also a governess, a Doctor, a kindly housekeeper, a gardener, and another presence--a very strange presence--which Margaret perceives as a ghost at first. Making obeisance to other great ghost stories, there is a deadly fire, a beautiful old house gone to ruin, and always that presence....
The transformative power of truth informs the lives of both women by story's end, and The Thirteenth Tale is finally and convincingly told. --Valerie Ryan
Abridged: 6 CDs, 7 hours running time.