20 January 2014
THE THIRTEENTH TALE by Diane Setterfield
The first book I’ve chosen to review in 2014 is THE THIRTEENTH TALE by Diane Setterfield. Diane is a local success story and was a member of Harrogate Writers Circle where she received much help and encouragement before going on to be published. The TV adaption was also on recently and I thought it would be fun to read her book and then watch it on screen. I’m glad I did as it gave me a better appreciation of the book than I might otherwise have had. Let me explain.
I'll start by telling you that the TV adaption was a real disappointment. So if you watched it yourself and it put you off reading the book, you might want to think again. THE THIRTEENTH TALE is allegedly a ‘ghost’ story so there was ample opportunity to use visual effects to put us edge - but the on-screen version failed dismally to re-create the atmosphere generated by the author. It took me a while to realise what had gone wrong but when I fell in it was obvious.
The book begins, fittingly enough, in a bookshop. Margaret Lea works there with her father and she is besotted with books. When she receives a letter from world famous author, Vida Winter, asking her to become her biographer, it’s hard for Margaret to resist. After years of prevaricating, Ms Winter has finally decided to tell the truth about her life, what is in effect ‘The Thirteenth Tale’, a story that has been hinted at in other works but has mysteriously disappeared. It’s the first of several ‘ghosts’.
This then, is what drives the narrative of the book. What is this ‘Thirteenth Tale’ and why is it so important? The mystery that surrounds it is what makes us want to continue reading. But the bookshop, her father and Margaret’s fascination with books is totally airbrushed out of the screen-play and so we lose that vital opening where everything is set up. No wonder it didn’t work so well. And as an author myself, it tells me a lot about the importance of getting that beginning right. Without it, you’re in danger of losing your audience. Thankfully for the reader, back at the bookshop Margaret decides to accept the commission and we can get on with the story.
As I say it’s supposedly a ghost story – but it’s one with a twist and I have no intention of giving that away here. And as a ghost story, and therefore not quite ‘real’, I suppose the author is entitled to use some flowery language to enhance the action. Ms Setterfield certainly takes advantage of this concession, although it’s sometimes a bit too much for my liking. Here’s an example.
‘On the edge of inaudibility, the rub of breath over vocal cords made ripples in the air. Soft plosives that were gone before you could hear them, muffled sibilants that you might mistake for the sound of your own blood in your ears. Each time I thought it had stopped a hushed sussuration brushed against my ear like a moth alighting on my hair, then fluttered away again.’
Ghostly? Maybe. Makes you shiver? Possibly. Flowery? Definitely. It might help create the atmosphere that was missing from the screen version but personally speaking, I like my prose a bit more simple and direct - then it doesn’t distract you from the story. But if that’s the way you like it, be my guest. Or should I say, be my ghost ...
So, if you like a good mystery story with a bit of poetry in the language, this could be for you. It certainly beats watching it on TV.