"Do you know why my books are so successful? ... It is because they have a beginning, a middle and an end. In the right order. ... I shall have to tell you the end of my story before I tell you the beginning."
"The end of your story? How can that be, if it happened before you started writing?"
"Quite simply because my story -- my own personal story -- ended before my writing began. Storytelling has only ever been a way of filling in the time since everything finished." (p. 54)
The Thirteenth Tale is structured as the account of Margaret Lea, bibliophile and biographer, who has been summoned to a remote house in Yorkshire to learn the truth about reclusive author Vita Winter. Miss Winter, gnawed by the 'wolf' of cancer, is notorious for never giving the same answer twice when asked about her past. 'Mere scraps from the bottom of my ragbag,' she says. But now (whenever 'now' might be: the setting's indeterminate, mid-20th century* maybe?) it's time to tell the truth.
Margaret is not without her own story, though she's never told it to anyone: she was born joined to her twin, who died when they were separated. Margaret sometimes feels like a ghost -- for example, on seeing her own reflection in a window at night -- and thus fits perfectly with the Gothic aesthetic of The Thirteenth Tale, which draws heavily on Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Woman in Whiteand The Turn of the Screw.
It's a story about twins: two sisters, sharp abrasive Adeline and soft passive Emmeline, co-dependent and functionally feral. They have their own language, and their own morality. Then comes governess Hester Barrow, who with the help of the local doctor is determined to socialise the girls.
It's also a story about violent passion: the twins' uncle Charlie's passion for his own sister Isabelle, Emmeline's fierce adoration of her twin, Adeline's increasingly destructive impulses, and the madness that seems to haunt the family.
And it's a story about pronouns: Margaret keeps hoping for 'I', 'me', when listening to Miss Winter's accounts of the past, and gradually Margaret -- and the reader -- become aware that Miss Winter ('the disappearing point at the heart of the narrative', p. 114) was an integral part of the events she's recounting. Later, much is made of the twins' language, and their tendency to use first-person plural ("we saw a rabbit") even when speaking of events experienced by only one of them. Gradually, even Margaret begins to tell her own story, from her point of view: for much of the novel, though, she's a shadowy presence, narrating but never letting us inside herself.
The level at which I most enjoyed this book, though, is that of the bibliophile. Margaret the reader and Vita the writer are very different, but their joy in the written word, in great literature and its creators, resonates with me on a visceral level. Like Margaret, 'when I was a child books were everything' (p. 37). Like Vita, I nurture the compost-heap of my imagination: I plant ideas there and let them grow.
The Thirteenth Tale -- the title refers to an anthology by Vita Winter which only contains twelve stories -- is an immensely readable novel, very atmospheric, well-paced and replete with mirrors, diversions, red herrings etc. Despite its epic scale and Gothic sensibility, I'm not wholly convinced that it has depth: there's something two-dimensional about the larger-than-life figures who strut and fret and roar through its pages.
But then, that's what books do ...
*On when the novel's set, including comments by the author