Friday 16 November 2018

The Thirteenth Tale

The Thirteenth Tale - Setterfield, Diane
The Thirteenth Tale

By Diane Setterfield

“There is something about words.  In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner.  Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts.  Inside you they work their magic.” (p. 8)

Margaret Lea is a bookseller and to her, reading is like breathing or eating; it’s essential to sustain life.  When she is commissioned to write the biography of famous novelist Vida Winter, she wonders why.  Vida has led her followers astray for years, recounting any number of fanciful tales as the story of her life.  All have proven to be false, until now. 

Vida is the quintessential storyteller; like Margaret, she lives and breathes stories. Born into a strange, almost outcast family, Vida is raised in a large house called Angelfield on the English moors. 

Vida’s story begins with siblings Charlie and Isabelle.  Disliked by his father, Charlie is a broken soul who cannot abide the way Isabelle is doted on.  He attempts to take his revenge on her, but shockingly, Isabelle proves as aggressive as her brother and the two form an unnatural bond. 

The next generation at Angelfield, Emmeline and Adeline, are twins who, as children, can only communicate in twin language.  Adeline, like her predecessors, is prone to physical violence which she forces on the submissive Emmeline.

Initially it is unclear where Vida fits in.  As Vida Winter is a pen name, the truth of her parentage unfolds over time.  Indeed the bizarre and somewhat sinister lifestyle at Angelfield involves many other characters and eventually culminates in a mysterious fire that leaves the house in ruins.

Margaret, as biographer, listens to Vida’s unbelievable tale and verifies her facts.  The darkness of the English moors seems to permeate her thoughts as her own family secrets haunt her.  Vida’s story brings Margaret face to face with her own demons, which she must eventually acknowledge.

The Thirteenth Tale is a gothic novel full of windswept landscapes, stormy nights, skeletons in the closet, family betrayals and life-long secrets.  If there was ever a book to read as the rain rages outside, this is it.  Put on some flannels, wrap up in a blanket, and settle into a riveting story, or what Vida Winter would call “[t]he soothing, rocking safety of a lie.” (p.5)

Saturday 10 November 2018

The Summer Before the War

By Helen Simonson
The Summer Before the War is a slow burning story of the inhabitants of Rye, England at the outbreak of World War I.  Despite the threat of war, in typical British style, the inhabitants of Rye keep calm and carry on.  Focusing on the everyday lives of civilians, The Summer Before the War follows a cast of diverse characters as they juggle their everyday lives with the knowledge that death is just around the corner.

These interesting characters all center on Agatha, a formidable matriarch in the small town of Rye. She has much more immediate concerns than war, like the reputation of a young Latin teacher she has taken under her wing. Beatrice Nash, penniless and alone, is ready to live out the rest of her life in spinsterhood as a Latin professor. With Agatha’s help, she settles into her new job while war threatens to draw away her young students. 

War looms greater still when Belgian refugees are brought to Rye for safety. The reception of refugees was eerily reminiscent of recent refugee crises.  While some people are very open to hosting, there is some hostility among the townsfolk.  Hostility or no, the traumas suffered by the refugees brought a new understanding of the war to Rye. As such, Agatha’s two nephews, a poet and a surgeon, start to feel the call to duty. 

This book definitely grew on me. It starts rather slowly, setting up all the characters and the dynamics of the town; however, by the second half I was desperate to read the next chapter (and the next, and the next!).  Strong female leads, a touch of romance, and British resilience are all on full display, making for an enjoyable and informative read just in time for Remembrance Day. 

Fans of Downton Abbey will enjoy The Summer before the War for its wide range of characters from different social classes. Both stories delve into how the Great War affected civilian lives in small town Britain, one focusing on before the war, the other focusing on after it!