Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Before I write any more, let me confess: I fell in love with this book. It's a book for booklovers, too: everything from a girl who grew up in a bookstore to a moral dilemma that weighs literature against life.

The framing story is this: a dying author, Vida Winter, who has always hidden her past with outrageous lies, decides to tell the story of her childhood to Margaret Lea, who is an amateur biographer and has written an insightful study of a pair of twins. And it's quite a tale she has, too: a gothic with dark nights, bizarre deaths, madness and perversity, feral twins, old family servants and a governess. Incredible and un-realistic-fiction-like enough that at first I wondered if Vida would turn out to be spinning another tale - but if she was, she never confessed.

But surely some of it must have been invented, extrapolated, filled in: the picnic before her birth, for example - no possible informant I can see for that. Conversations recounted verbatim, that even the most detail-oriented family cook could not have retained or listening child recalled. Memory's a slipperier thing, a plague of biographers and framing-device novelists alike. At first my suspension of disbelief was jarred.

I couldn't quite discern what time either portion of the story was set in - Vida's story, or Margaret's, some 60-70 years later. Even the more modern frame seemed to belong to an era that did not know cell phones or computers. I think that was deliberate - it's a book meant to sit with the Brontes', or Du Maurier. Email wouldn't have gone well.

No comments: