"One gets so used to one's own horrors, one forgets how they must seem to other people," says
world-famous octogenarian novelist Vida Winter, who is anxious to tell the story of her past before chronic illness kills her. Indeed, Miss Winter seems to be a remnant of a bygone age and has been agonizing over the mystery of her life for quite some time.
Uneasy about finally letting the truth be known, Vida enlists the assistance of Margaret Lea, a
bookish young literary writer who has been helping her father run an antiquarian bookshop in London. Margaret receives a baffling letter from Vida, asking her to come to her house in the midst of Yorkshire to listen to her confessional.
Vida is famous for writing a book called The Thirteen Tales, but only twelve of the tales were ever published, and then under an assumed name. Margaret's interest is automatically piqued - partly out of professional interest, as she really wants the origin of this mysterious thirteenth tale, but also to assuage her own insecurities about her past.
She jumps at the offer, mostly because she wants to find out more about this cagey, enigmatic woman who has kept so much of her life so secret. Ensconced in Vida's sprawling house in the wintry landscape of Yorkshire, the virtually friendless Vida begins to pour her heart out to Margaret, her dreams and her disappointments, eventually confessing that her name is actually Adeline March and that she once lived on a vast country hunting estate at the center of which was Angelfield House.
At first Margaret is suspicious, unsure whether Vida/Adeline is really telling her the whole story. She's about to walk out, frustrated at the older woman's guarded answers.
But once Vida mentions that once upon a time there were twins, and that Vida herself once had a twin sister called Emmeline, Margaret is drawn back to Vida by something beyond her control.
Margaret is also somewhat careworn by her own private demons. Like Vida/ Adeline, she also had a twin sister, but she died at birth.
This revelation causes a kind of weary truce between the two women. Vida tells Margaret that she chose her because she knows "about siblings," while Margaret informs Vida that from the start, she must tell her everything.
As Vida prepares to unleash her house of secrets, the novel morphs into a type of Victorian ghost story, where pieces of a puzzle are steadily revealed. Angelfield House does indeed have a gloomy and unsettling past:
there's a pair of ruinous redheaded girls rumored to be up to no good, and a naïve
young mother who is inexplicably carted off to an insane asylum.
An ancient, blind housekeeper, along with her devoted gardener, plays loyal guardian to a ghost.
There's an abandoned baby left on a doorstep one night during a thunderous storm, and an officious, but kind-hearted governess who mysteriously disappears, never to be seen again.
As the serpentine narrative unfolds, Setterfield populates her complex tale with an almost Jamesian passion as she throws in numerous subplots involving orphans, burning buildings, decimated libraries, and scraps of pages from the novel Jane Eyre.
As the story of Vida/Adeline's life grows ever more bizarre, Margaret finds herself moving through the twin worlds of worlds of reality and make-believe, through the past and the present. She becomes a sort of detective, burrowing deeper and deeper into the mystery surrounding Vida's life, where she
is eventually forced to face her own feelings about the death of her long-lost sister.
Forever mired in truth and falsehood, The Thirteenth Tale cleverly builds to its earth-shattering finale involving a deadly fire and a surprise revelation that shakes Margaret's world. Along the way, this exquisitely written work of fiction stirs up deep feelings of memory and loss and is indeed a terrific page-turner for those who admire and respect the fine art of literary fiction.