Here it is:
The Thirteenth TaleAnyway, I also have Lydia to thank for telling me about this. I'd never have known if she hadn't mentioned it because I hadn't had the time to read any newspapers. Hurray for the Internet!
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria Books
Paperback: 416 pages
If you apply the acid-test of reading a first page of a novel and seeing whether it pulls you into the story and makes you want to keep on reading to Diane Setterfield's debut novel, I am in no doubt it will pass.
The Thirteenth Tale starts simple: Margaret Lea, plain, bookish and reclusive, receives a letter at her father's bookshop. The letter is by none other than world-renown Vida Winter, claimed to be "England's best writer; our century's Dickens; the world's most famous living author".
Not only does Ms. Winter creates stories when she writes her acclaimed novels, she spins a different story every time someone interviews her about her past. Her many versions of a "true" personal history, as well as a legendary mystery behind the missing thirteenth story in her book, Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation adds to her infamy.
Margaret, preferring the works of authors long since dead, hasn't read the contemporary works of Vida Winter and is surprised that she has been chosen to be Winter's official biographer. She is intrigued by her strange letter, one that promises her the truth if she agrees to become Winter's biographer.
What follows is a deeply engaging story of Vida Winter's past and present that takes place in the haunting moors of Yorkshire. With a crazy woman, a governess, seemingly incomprehensible children and a burning manor, this book isn't just a homage to the gothic novels in the vein of the Bronte sisters, it's also somewhat of a send-up to them.
Margaret takes a liking to roaming about on the moors on a raining winter's night, and is consequently overcome with a high fever. She is later chided by her doctor for being a romantic and prescribes her a change of reading material: "In a vigourous scrawl, he had inked: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes. Take ten pages, twice a day, till end of course."
Indeed, she is a little melodramatic. Margaret had a twin sister who died at birth and though she goes through most of the book pining for her lost sibling, it's hard to sympathise with her. The way she bemoans the loss is as if she had lost someone she had known for years, when in truth she had never met her at all other than in her wild, romantic imagination: "Under the covers I pressed my hand against the silver-pink crescent on my torso. The shadow my sister had left behind. Like an archaeologist of the flesh, I explored my body for evidence of its ancient history. I was as cold as a corpse."
Though The Thirteenth Tale has a few letdowns, Setterfield manages to engage our interest and succeeds in holding it to keep us turning the page until the satisfactory conclusion. It is a joy to read because it celebrates the wonders of reading and having a life surrounded by books. This is a stunning book and totally deserves its much-hyped million-dollar advance.
I shall blog about my Nanowrimo experience later. Gotta make coffee.