FROM the first few words of this novel it becomes apparent that Diane Setterfield has created a remarkably compelling debut. Her narrator, biographer Margaret Lee, receives a mysterious letter. The contents take her away from her sedentary, bookish life in a dusty antiquarian bookshop where she writes biographies of obscure figures. She is summoned to a remote house in Yorkshire, where best-selling novelist Vida Winter sits waiting to tell her story.
Margaret goes on to narrate the mesmerising transformation of her life as she is compelled to live, work and breathe the biography of Vida that she is expected to write. Her research leads her towards some horribly eerie experiences in the dark grounds of Angelfied, the deserted semi-ruined house where Vida once lived out her childhood along with her strange red-headed sisters. Ghosts are purported to roam there and a grisly discovery in the ruined library only adds to the mystery of Vida's story.
There is nothing remotely modern about Margaret; she may live in contemporary times, but she explains events in a sober voice from the past, like Jane Eyre mixed with the touching naivety of the second Mrs De Winter in Rebecca. She is an unlikely heroine, childless, unmarried, wedded to books and literature instead, but she too has hidden family secrets and is haunted by ghosts not yet laid to rest.
The story that unfolds before her eager biographer's eye is packed with gothic horror: two strange sisters morph into three, tragic mothers are carted off to lunatic asylums, houses burn to the ground and wise housekeepers and gardeners form an integral part of the plot. Setterfield's captivating prose ensures that some of the best scenes of the book boast a supernatural quality: "The dark shapes of the yew stood like a hazily painted stage set, flattened into two dimensions by the blank background. Like ethereal bowler hats a pair of domed forms floated on the cloud-like mist, the trunks that supported them fading into the whiteness beneath".
Although The Thirteenth Tale has a trance-like feel, the plot is razor-sharp and becomes more complex towards the end; the twists and turns in the final few chapters of this novel demand that the reader pay close attention to every word before being left shaken and surprised by the turn of events.
This is an extraordinary, unusual and atmospheric story with a sense of timelessness about it. It is rare to be able to smell a book as well as read it, but this one is steeped in the aroma of old houses in remote places with strange faded furnishings and little natural light. It will appeal to anybody with a love of literature and a passion for the feel and smell of old books.
It is focused around the art of reading and the persuasive power of written words both true and untrue. The Thirteenth Tale is steeped in the rich colours and aromas of an autumn dying away into winter. It should be read in one sitting in a Victorian library nestled deep within a big country house with curtains pulled shut around a window-seat, the fire leaping in the grate and the lamps turned down low.