Townhouse Books

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Thirteenth Tale: Diane Setterfield

Rainy day reading! Setterfield is a former academic specializing in French literature. Her first novel is a complicated tangle of stories, featuring two sets of twins, two spooky old houses, and two tragic nights.

The narrator is an amateur biographer who is summoned to the home of England's most famous contemporary author to hear the never-before-told story of the author's childhood. The author draws the narrator with two pieces of information: first, that she is dying and wants the truth to be known, and second, that her story involves twins. As the surviving half of a pair of conjoined twins, the narrator feels compelled to stay and listen.

Setterfield does a wonderful job of mingling the old story with the new, making both equally vivid through the voice of the narrator and the voice of the dying author. Their conversations are fascinating, especially as they get to know each other better. At one point the old lady asks the young woman this question: if all of the copies of your favorite novels were headed down a conveyor belt towards an incinerator with a living person operating the switch, and you could only stop the process by shooting him, would you do it? She describes the process: first a Jane Austen novel is lost to the world, then the copies of Jane Eyre start slipping away. The narrator refuses to answer, but in her heart (and her narrative) she admits the truth -- she loves books better than she loves people.

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