Friday, April 15, 2011

A Web of Books, Beginning with "The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield

This post is less a book review and more an explanation of the other books The Thirteenth Tale brought to my mind as I was reading. I thought of some books immediately, and others occurred to me as I was looking up pertinent information, such as authors of books I knew titles of. Hence a web of books, books that got caught in the net of my imagination loosed by ideas presented in The Thirteenth Tale.

First, I do want to talk about Diane Setterfield's excellent story. It could be classified as a suspense novel, but there's so much more to it than just that. The central idea is truth. (Is there a universal truth? Is truth only in the eye of the knower?) There is also the idea of story, that is, how events surrounding one's birth shape that person and make them unique. As Setterfield unfolds the narrative, the reader is drawn into the mystery of who Vida Winter is, who she really is as opposed to the fictional tales she has told about herself over the years. We also are privy to Margaret's story. Margaret has been selected by Miss Winter to be her official biographer now that she's coming to the end of her life. As the two women work together, we see the present story of them and how their birth stories have led them to where they are now. We also meet Hester Barrow, a former governess from Miss Winter's childhood, and learn her story. Margaret meets Aurelius while visiting Miss Winter's childhood home, and she eventually gets to reveal his story to him because he was a foundling and therefore doesn't know anything about his birth. All these characters and more from past and present are entwined in a marvelously plotted book.

Setterfield's characters also have an affinity for language, words, and literature, which is not surprising since Vida Winter and Margaret Lea are both authors. Romantic classics, especially Jane Eyre, are almost like characters themselves. Margaret especially is prone to losing herself in a story, whether she stays up late reading or is transcribing her notes from Miss Winter's oral tale. The setting in the moors of England is straight out of a Bronte novel, and the antics of twin sisters and their families makes for a Gothic-Romantic meld.

The Thirteenth Tale is not a fast read as details emerge slowly and the truth of the entire story comes mostly at the end, but it is a page-turner.

Now, onto the web part.

The first connection I made was to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It was mentioned several times, enough so I was reminded of other books that took inspriration from that classic. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys was written in 1966 as a prequel to Bronte's story. For those who always wondered how Mr. Rochester's first wife ended up in his attic as a madwoman, Rhys's book will explain. More recently, Jasper Fforde chose Jane Eyre as a work in danger of revision in The Eyre Affair. Literary detective Thursday Next, living in an alternate version of England, has to actually enter Bronte's story in order to save the characters.

Madness, manic depression, or simply "bad blood" also figures in Setterfield's novel. I was reminded first of a book I recently read called Prayers and Lies by Sherri Wood Emmons. In both of these books, the authors pursue the idea that insanity or some kind of personality disorder could run in families. Also, Sylvia Plath's classic The Bell Jar popped into my head. In it, she describes an episode of depression as told by the girl living through it.

For anyone interested in the use of language or in letters as a viable form of communication, take a look at Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. His story unfolds through letters that become increasingly difficult to read because certain town fathers have outlawed the use of particular letters of the alphabet. This book does go quickly as I read it in one sitting.

The twins in The Thirteen Tale have their own secret language, and I was reminded of the true story of Jennifer and June Gibbons, twin sisters from Britain who communicated mostly with each other and who felt so out of tune with their world that they turned to crime in order to get some notice. They were sent to a mental institution instead of prison. One twin is still living. Read their story in Marjorie Wallace's The Silent Twins. Identical Strangers is another true story about twins, but this time it's about sisters who were separated at birth and found each other later in life. Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein take turns sharing their perspectives of that meeting. Crying Wolf by Peter Abrahams is a suspense novel in which college student Nat falls for twins Izzy and Grace and is drawn into their high society world of secrets.

So that is my web of stories connecting to The Thirteenth Tale. If you've had a similar experience, please share in the comments.

thanks to tim phillips for the photo

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