Twins Are Subject of Gothic Tale
The Thirteenth Tale
By Diane Setterfield
Washington Square Press, 2007, $15
The twins myth has always been something of a delicious mystery, especially to non-twins.
We have heard of a strange language only twins understand. We have heard accounts of twins doing the same things at the same time, marrying on the same date, becoming ill at the same time, never really becoming separate individuals.
In this modern Gothic tale, Diane Setterfield studies a series of issues involving twins. In particular she zeroes in on the depth of their tragedy when one dies early.
Our narrator is Margaret Lea, a quiet scholarly young English woman who helps her father operate a bookstore that concentrates on first editions, antique books and other rare and obscure volumes. She is also an accomplished biographer.
Her reclusive lifestyle is set spinning when she receives an unusual request from Vida Winter, a writer of popular bestsellers, asking Margaret to become her official biographer.
At first reluctant, Margaret finally agrees to visit Miss Winter at her Yorkshire estate and record the truth about her life.
Margaret quickly learns that the truth is far afield from the public image of the best-selling novelist, for Miss Winter has a strange and terrifying tale of growing up in one of the most seriously dysfunctional families imaginable -- and a wealthy family, at that.
For one thing, Miss Winter uses rather earthy language to describe writing and life. In fact, she likens life to compost.
"Other people call it the imagination. I think of it as a compost heap. Every so often I take an idea, plant it in the compost, and wait. It feeds on that black stuff that used to be a life, takes its energy for its own. It germinates. Takes root. Produces shoots. And so on and so forth, until one fine day I have a story, or a novel," Miss Winter says.
"The Thirteenth Tale" unfolds in the style of the great Gothic novels, leaning heavily on the likes of "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights." Although it has a modern setting, the novel is devoid of such modern amenities as telephones or computers, even typewriters. When Margaret communicates with her father while in Yorkshire, she writes a prim letter instead of placing a telephone call. It's more reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes' style than modern sleuthing.
Margaret launches an investigation of her own and uncovers startling details from Vida Winter's past and the tragedy that marked her lifestyle in later years. Mystery after mystery piles up, as Margaret learns even more about her own past and a twin she lost at birth.
Setterfield's writing style is fluid, producing a page turner so vivid that the reader can forgive the sometimes contrived and heavy Gothic setting, as if the Addams family has moved in with Heathcliffe.
Setterfield, who lives in Yorkshire, is described as a former academic specializing in 20th century French literature.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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