THE THIRTEENTH TALE is a magnificent, beautifully written and involving story, a modern version of a Victorian novel. Vida Winter is the most respected and widely read living writer, now coming to the end of her life. Throughout her career, she's been interviewed many times but has always given different and fantastical stories about her life, so that she's preserved an aura of mystery.
Margaret Lea is a young, repressed woman who lives in a bare room above her father's antiquarian bookshop. All her life she has loved reading, but has never attempted a contemporary novel. She's written a few articles on her non-fiction research, one of them having been published in an academic journal. Out of the blue, Margaret receives a letter in terrible handwriting, which she deciphers as being an invitation from Vida Winter, who wants Margaret to write her biography. Curious as to how she has been selected for this honour, and unable to sleep because of her sadness about her life, Margaret begins to read an early book of stories by Vida, entitled "The Thirteenth Tale". After a paragraph, she is hooked, quickly devours the rest of the author’s output, and accepts the commission.
"The Thirteenth Tale" in itself is a mystery, as there are only twelve tales in the book – haunting and original takes on old fairy stories. Margaret has been reading a rare first edition from her father’s special locked case, but all subsequent editions of the book were given a different title; the fate of the missing tale has remained an enduring puzzle.
Margaret travels to Vida's large house in Yorkshire, and in an atmospheric setting reminiscent of Dickens or Charlotte Bronte, the old woman begins to tell her life story to the younger woman. Although all that has gone before is readable and involving, the book truly comes into its own in this section. The story of Vida's family history is utterly compelling.
THE THIRTEENTH TALE continues as a series of passages of Vida's story as dictated to and interpreted by Margaret, interspersed with Margaret's thoughts and discoveries about herself, and her own researches about Vida's past. Margaret becomes increasingly obsessed with the parallels between her life and Vida's, and although the older woman is determined to tell her story in chronological order, Margaret undergoes her own investigation, uncovering a crime and various dramatic family secrets which have a strong effect on her own life. The twist in the tale is relatively easy to guess if you are a seasoned reader of mystery novels, and there are some parts of the present-day story about the inhabitants of the village where Vida lived as a child that are not very realistic. But these are minor issues that do not detract from the overall excellence of this beautifully written, multi-layered book.