book review of my last book of 2007: the thirteenth tale, by diane setterfield

A friend gave me this for my birthday some months ago, and I read it (mostly) during our Christmas vacation in Florida.  (It – inexplicably – edged out my non-fiction tome describing horrific tortures carried out by British imperialists in Kenya in the 1950s.)

good thriller (gathers momentum from okay to exciting) with an inspired twist and a satisfying finish

The backbone of this story is Vida Winter, the best-selling, captivating, masterful novelist of her generation, telling the secret story of her life to her chosen biographer, a reclusive bibliophile and occasional biographer Margaret Lea. The principal challenge for an author with writing a book in which a masterful (captivating, eloquent, powerful) storyteller tells her story is that you expect the story within the story to be, well, masterful. And when it isn’t, you’re disappointed. (It’s kind of like the old Tom Hanks-Sally Field movie Punchline where Hanks plays an excellent stand-up comic, but the stand-up comedy in the film isn’t that funny.)

This novel starts out that way. The storytelling isn’t masterful, and Ms Winter – as she tells her story – displays the annoying habit of describing all sorts of feelings and exchanges that she would have no way of knowing about. She describes the dialogues and sentiments of members of her household that took place before she was born or when she was just a baby (without providing a plausible way for her to have learned of them). Maybe other stories make this mistake, but it stands out here, perhaps because Ms Winter is telling her story TO A BIOGRAPHER who realistically would not unquestioningly accept this kind of speculation. At other times, when other characters are telling their stories, the author takes explicit pains to explain why the narrative seems smoother or more omniscient than it should. Those explicit cases (sometimes a little over-explained) make Ms Winter’s inappropriate omniscience stand out even more.

Although this is no The Shadow of the Wind [1], the plot picks up with twists and turns and red herrings, and finally the author adds a clever plot twist worthy of the film The Sixth Sense, a twist that allows the reader to turn back and re-interpret the entire story. Crafting a credible twist of that nature is no small feat, and Setterfield does it well.

I also enjoyed the ending. The author clearly subscribes to the adage: Give the audience what it wants. She ties up the loose strings and lets us know what happens to all the key characters with a wink and a nudge to her audience, indicating that she knows she is stepping beyond the immediate scope of the story but that she also knows we’re interested in the next step of the characters’ stories.

Well done. Not perfect, but well done.

[Note on content: The book has a few non-explicit references to sexual violence (no descriptions).]

[1] I actually read the original Spanish version of The Shadow of the Wind, La Sombra Del Viento (by Carlos Ruiz Zafon), and adored it. I have heard many rave reviews of the English translation. By no means should you listen to the English audiobook, which I tried to listen to but couldn’t for its over-the-top music and accents.

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