Book Review: “The Thirteenth Tale” by Diane Setterfield (Christmas Special)


“The Club Dumas” wasn’t the only book I’ve acquired thanks to Goodreads’ recommendations. This little gem was bought online in Oxfam – really recommend this shop by the way – they deliver worldwide and books are in great condition, and the money goes to charity. Win-win situation. And I’m not just saying that because I used to work as a bookseller for them.

Anyway, “The Thirteenth Tale”. This is one of the many books that I struggle, and do not particularly wish to, sort into a specific genre. From what I’ve read about the protagonist, she would most certainly agree. Her name is Margaret Lea, and she and her father own a small independent bookshop in Cambridge, UK – think English equivalent of “Sempere and Sons”. One day, Margaret receives a letter from a bestselling author Vida Winter who asks her to write the first ever true account of her life. Winter has previously given one interview a year and lied at every single one of them about who she was and where she came from. After some hesitation, Margaret agrees, the main reason being that when she read Winter’s novels for the first time, she felt like she was a child once again. For her, that was the time when books were everything, and there was always in her that “nostalgic yearning” for the lost pleasure of books she experienced then. Winter’s books have fulfilled that yearning.

From the first day of her visit, we get the vibe that this is going to be a novel full of gothic elements – quiet empty houses, moors, black cats, and gorgeous libraries. Miss Winter informs her that her story is very structured – obvious beginnings and endings. The rest of the book flawlessly follows the story of Miss Winter’s family and her childhood, intervining with Margaret’s own story in a beautifully chilling way. Vida Winter’s story contains A LOT of family drama, an abundance of gothic elements, “ghosts”, and, of course, books. A lot of books. However, the main theme and focus of the story is relationships between twins. Both Margaret and Vida have experienced the kind of loss only a twin can properly understand, which is what makes their stories so compelling and so beautifully tragic.

The title of the novel comes from a book by Vida Winter. The Thirteenth Tale is the story that has been “lost” since the first edition of the storybook. Setterfield clears that up at the end of the book.

Primarily, to me this was a very story-driven book. That’s not to say that the characters weren’t well written – they were all amazing. However, I am an only child, so it was hard for me to understand Margaret’s and Vida’s emotions and attitudes at times. Setterfield primarily focuses on them as the remaining parts of a sisterhood; therefore, it seems to me that those with siblings would understand it better. She is a really great writer nonetheless, and I firmly believe that those of you who do have siblings, particularly twins, would relate to the characters really well!

Even if you’re an only child, like me, the stories of Vida Winter,


or a girl with no name as we realise in the end


and Margaret are amazing. Setterfield masterfully uses the elements from my favourite classic novels, such as “Jane Eyre” and “The Woman in White” in order to illustrate the events of the story and gives us clues as to the plot twists. This technique doesn’t always work, and it takes a great writer to make it sound good, but Setterfield makes it look beautiful on the page – a real feast for words conoisseurs like myself! She is a really great writer and, as expected from an English professor, uses various other literary techniques such as foreshadowing and metaphors to spook you and make you wonder about the twists. She does so quite masterfully, not unlike the Bronte sisters in “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre” or Wilkie Collins in “The Woman in White”. Books such as the ones above, as well as “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” are all clues as to solving the main mystery of the story – who exactly is Vida Winter and why are her story and Margaret’s play such a significant role towards each other.

The only things I didn’t like were the POV switches in the story – sometimes it wasn’t clear until later whether I was reading from Margaret’s POV, Vida’s or a third person’s. Also, the book was a bit slow at times – Setterfield is a word aficionado and sometimes, uses quite wordy descriptions and spends long paragraphs telling us what a person is thinking, sometimes repeating herself. Most of the time it works; however, occasionally, it is frustrating, since you really want to know the answers to the mysteries. Nevertheless, I have no hesitation in giving “The Thirteenth Tale” a rating of 7.5/10.

Most relatable character:

Like I said before, the main characters would most likely be more relatable to those of you who understand what it is like to have a sibling, particularly a twin. I am not one of those people; therefore, I shall leave it to you to decide whether you find them relatable.

Least favourite character:

Charlie the master of Angelfield – he is one repulsive bastard.

Favourite relationship:

Setterfield is a master of writing sibling relationships. However, I can’t say which ones are my favourites without spoiling the book.

Favourite quotes:

Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes – characters even – caught in the fibres of your clothes, and when you open the new book they are still with you.”

“Readers are fools. They believe all writing is autobiographical. And so it is, but not in the way they think. The writer’s life needs time to rot away before it can be used to nourish a work of fiction. it must be allowed to decay”

“People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humour, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. All this, even though they are dead.”


My dreamcast completely matches the one decided by the BBC. Looking forward to the TV movie airing in 5 days!


You will enjoy “The Thirteenth Tale” if you liked:

“The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon; 

“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte;

“The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins;

“The Historian” by Elizabeth Kostova

Happy holidays everybody!

(My photo)


2 thoughts on “Book Review: “The Thirteenth Tale” by Diane Setterfield (Christmas Special)

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