Saturday, June 13, 2009

What I'm Reading Now-The Thirteenth Tale

Cover to the first editionImage via Wikipedia
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield-I LOVED this book. I enjoyed the story, but what sucked me in was the writing. I'm not someone who usually pays that much attention to writing style-as long as the story is good I don't really care too much about the writing as long as it isn't terrible-but I loved the writing in this book. I can't even define what it is that I liked, I just know I liked it. Part of it was that the author was able to capture so perfectly things that I have thought or felt before but never would have been able to accurately explain to someone else myself, but it was more than that. You can't just agree with someone else's descriptions for 400-some-odd pages and call that love. This is a book that I couldn't wait to get back to, to disappear back into the story every chance I had.

The story takes place in England amongst family-owned bookstores, richly furnished libraries, and country estates. What's not to love so far? The extremely popular but reclusive author, Vida Winter, has requested that Margaret Lea, a reclusive biographer in her own right, come to her home to write her biography. This is a first for Margaret, who is used to writing only about dead people, and for Miss Winter's fans. Over the years many writers have asked Miss Winter for her story, and they have all walked away with something, but never the truth. This changes when Margaret is summoned to Miss Winter's estate and Miss Winter finally tells her story, a story about twin girls, Adeline and Emmeline, who grew up under the neglectful eye of their mother and uncle (father/uncle?) and in the care of their well-meaning but mostly impotent housekeeper. They were a world unto themselves, each one half of a whole but a whole that wasn't quite....right. Eventually their childhood home burns to the ground, but who these girls are and the events leading up to the fire make for a mesmerizing story.

As Margaret prepares for her work with Miss Winter she decides to familiarize herself with some of Miss Winter's work. The effect that Miss Winter's work has on her is described in the following passage:

Of course one always hopes for something special when one reads an author one hasn't read before, and Miss Winter's books gave me the same thrill I had when I discovered the Landier diaries, for instance. But it was more than that. I have always been a reader; I have read at every stage of my life, and there has never been a time when reading was not my greatest joy. And yet I cannot pretend that the reading I have done in my adult years matches in its impact on my soul the reading I did as a child. I still believe in stories. I still forget myself when I am in the middle of a good book. Yet it is not the same. Books are, for me, it must be said, the most important thing; what I cannot forget is that there was a time when they were at once more banal and more essential than that. When I was a child, books were everything. And so there is in me, always, a nostalgic yearning for the lost pleasure of books. It is not a yearning that one ever expects to be fulfilled. And during this time, these days when I read all day and half the night, when I slept under a counterpane strewn with books, when my sleep was black and dreamless and passed in a flash and I woke to read again-the lost joys of reading returned to me. Miss Winter restored to me the virginal qualities of the novice reader, and then with her stories she ravished me. (p. 32)

Like Margaret I have been a reader all of my life, whether I was reading myself or someone else was reading to me is irrelevant. I can't remember my life without books. I can't imagine my life without books, and then, wow, that bit at the end!

There are so many things that I want to quote for you from this book, but I don't want this post to get too long, and/or I don't know if they'll do justice to the book all on their own-they're mainly pieces that I could relate to, as I was saying at the beginning of this post, but not much to do with the story itself, so please don't let that throw you. That said...

Margaret and Miss Winter have sat down for one of their sessions, but Margaret is distracted. That description in and of itself is enough for most of us to understand; we've all been there, our thoughts are elsewhere, we've got other things on our mind, but I love the way that Setterfield describes this phenomenon:

All morning I struggled with the sensation of stray wisps of one world seeping through the cracks of another. Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes-characters even-caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you. Well, it was like that. All day I had been prey to distractions. Thoughts, memories, feelings, irrelevant fragments of my own life, playing havoc with my concentration.

Miss Winter was telling me about something when she interrupted herself. "Are you listening to me, Miss Lea?"

I jerked out of my reverie and fumbled for an answer. Had I been listening? I had no idea. At that moment I couldn't have told her what she had been saying, though I'm sure that somewhere in my mind there was a place where it was all recorded. But at the point when she jerked me out of myself, I was in a kind of no-man's-land, a place between places. The mind plays all sorts of tricks, gets up to all kinds of things while we ourselves are slumbering in a white zone that looks for all the world like inattention to the onlooker. (p. 289-290)

Boy, have I ever been there before. In fact, I seem to find myself there more and more frequently these days. At the current moment I'm a little distracted because I keep drifting back to something that needs to be said, but that I don't want to have to say, and I need to find exactly the right time and place to say it or it won't get said, but it needs to be said. Again, Setterfield finds a way to describe this that is so spot on:

His confidences, this mist, had led us unexpectedly onto a peninsula of intimacy, and I found myself on the brink of telling what I had never told anyone before. The words flew ready-formed into my head, organized themselves instantly into sentences, long strings of sentences, bursting with impatience to fly from my tongue. As if they had spent years planning for this moment.

"I believe you," I repeated, my tongue thick with all the waiting words. "I've had that feeling, too. Knowing things you can't know. From before you can remember."

And there it was again! A sudden movement in the corner of my eye, there and gone in the same instant.

"Did you see that, Aurelius?"

He followed my gaze to the topiary pyramids and beyond. "See what? No, I didn't see anything."

It had gone. Or else it had never been there at all.

I turned back to Aurelius, but I had lost my nerve. The moment for confidences was gone. (p.220-221)
Augh! Don't you hate it when that happens? How many times have you put off having a conversation, asking a question, revealing a secret for hours, days, even years, because the time just wasn't quite right?

One more. Remember the not-quite-right twins? Well, here is a great moment of revelation as to their character. The housekeeper Mrs. Dunne (the Missus) is listening to them talk to each other in their made-up twin language when:

The shock of understanding froze her there in the doorway. And as sometimes happens, one illumination opened the door to another. The clock on the mantelpiece chimed and, as always, the mechanism under glass sent a little bird out of a cage to flap a mechanical circuit before reentering the cage on the other side. As soon as the girls heard the first chime, they looked up at the clock. Two pairs of wide green eyes watched, unblinking, as the bird labored around the inside of the bell, wings up, wings down, wings up, wings down.

There was nothing particularly cold, particularly inhuman about their gaze. It was just the way children look at inanimate moving objects. But it froze the Missus to the core. For it was exactly the same as the way they looked at her, when she scolded, chided or exhorted.

They don't realize that I am alive, she thought. They don't know that anyone is alive but themselves. (p.83)

Yeah, good luck with those two, Missus. Remember how I talked about kids that make me happy? These are not those kids. These kids? They give me the heebie-jeebies.

Anyway, I loved this book. I didn't expect to like it that much, but I finally gave in and mooched it because of all the buzz about it, but I thought it would be entertaining and that would be about it. I was wrong.

Other reviews:

Nymeth at Things Mean a Lot (who also has links to tons of other reviews)

And for a slightly different take (caution: spoilers)
30 Great Books

If you've read this book, I'd like to hear what you thought about it. Did you review it? Let me know, and I'll add your review.

(BTW, do you like my giant graphic? I've been experimenting with Zemanta, and that is what it gave me.)

3 comments:

Nymeth said...

I enjoyed this a lot too! I think the story drew me in more than the writing, but they were both great. And yes, the kids were creepy :P My thoughts are here.

Heather J. said...

Thanks for the linky love. :) I'm so glad you enjoyed this book - it WAS quite good. And yeah, those kids ... *shiver* ...

Dreamybee said...

Nymeth-I KNEW I'd seen a review of yours, but I totally couldn't find it-must have been more tired than I thought when I was putting this together! I love that out of 400 pages, we picked the same paragraph to include in our reviews. I also just realized that the scene you included that talks about Dr. Clifton's recognition of Margaret's sorrow-"'I know,' he said, because he was human, and therefore, in a way, he did."-echoes that of the Missus' recognition of John-the-dig's despair over his garden, another scene that I loved.

Heather-You're welcome! I'm glad I enjoyed it too-such a nice surprise when that happens and you're not expecting it. :)