Vida Winter, a bestselling yet reclusive novelist, has created many outlandish life histories for herself, all of them invention. Now old and ailing, at last she wants to tell the truth about her extraordinary life. Her letter to biographer Margaret Lea — a woman with secrets of her own — is a summons. Vida’s tale is one of gothic strangeness featuring the Angelfield family.
Vita has told so many journalists so many different versions of her life, that there are probably hundreds of them published. As Vita tells Margaret:
Simple little stories, really, not much to them. Just a few strands, woven together in a pretty pattern, a memorable motif here, a couple of sequins there. Mere scraps from the bottom of my ragbag. Then it’s just a matter of neatening the edges, stitching in the ends, and it’s done. Another brand-new biography.
And it’s a gothic, strange tale, but what a wonderful story. Gripping, page-turning. The reader can’t wait to see what happens next. To whom. And why.
The book is about Vita, certainly, and Margaret, of course, but also about twins. And an elderly housekeeper. And a gardener. And some other fey creatures who haunt us. And it is about story-telling, the art, the craft, the process, the teller. When one character is pressed to recount to Margaret something,
His face settled into passive neutrality, a sign that in the way of all storytellers, he was disappearing to make way for the voice of the story itself.
A rather unforgettable book and story. As Margaret the biographer muses:
Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes – characters even- caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you.
Yeah. I know that feeling.
The Thirteenth Tale is now being adapted for the BBC. I am on the lookout for her next book, a ghost story, Bellman & Black.