Magazine article The Spectator

The Full Gothic Treatment

Magazine article The Spectator

The Full Gothic Treatment

Article excerpt

THE THIRTEENTH TALE by Diane Setterfield Orion, £14.99, pp. 400, ISBN 0752875736

Over the coming weeks you are sure to hear a good deal about The Thirteenth Tale.

The author of this novel, a teacher of French literature living in Harrogate, has already netted 1.5 million pounds in advance royalties from British and US publishers alone. Foreign deals and film rights will surely garner much more. Comparisons have been drawn with Daphne du Maurier and some classics of the gothic genre. Diane Setterfield herself says that she turned to writing after ten years of reading French literature made her hanker for the English novels of the 19th century.

If a literary estate agent were to show you around a classic gothic mansion, you might demand certain 'period features'.

The place should be dilapidated beyond repair, with chunks of falling masonry and plaster providing a daily hazard. A resident ghost would come as standard, and one might also hope for a fierce governess, a mad relative (mouldering in some forgotten wing) and scope for incest. Access to gloomy forests and a local asylum would be essential.

Angelfield, the mansion dominating this novel, ticks all those boxes and boasts some extras. There are twins, the offspring of a baronet, so neglected that they have turned feral and communicate in grunts. Servants either hand in their notice or meet an assortment of sticky ends. The topiary comes under savage attack, leaving the gardener traumatised. The cook is taken up with some mysterious secret that distracts her from producing food.

It does not add up to very original material, but part of the fun of The Thirteenth Tale is that it is highly derivative of old favourites. This is both a gothic story in its own right, and a homage to the art of spinning a good yarn. Setterfield wields her clichés with panache -- 'The library seemed empty, but it wasn't' -- and puts italics in all the right places: 'Someone was watching me'.

The story is narrated by a young woman whose great love is books. Margaret Lea works in her father's antiquarian bookshop, rarely selling anything. 'As one tends the graves of the dead, so I tend the books. I clean them, do minor repairs, keep them in good order. And every day I open a volume or two, read a few lines or pages, allow the voices of the forgotten dead to resonate inside my head. …

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