I was going to try to do this without spoilers, but I don’t think that’s possible – my feelings on the book will give away the answer to the mystery. So I proceed by giving you ample warning. I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but really, only one matters: Is Vida Winter telling the truth, or is she not.
First, let me explain the premise of the book. The narrator, Margaret Lea, is contacted by famous author Vida Winter to write up Miss Winter’s biography. Miss Winter has had numerous biographers in the past, and she’s never told them anywhere near the truth of her life story. She’s a storyteller. She makes stories up. That’s how she presents her life, too, though now she claims she wants to tell someone the truth (she’s about to die). Miss Lea has never even read a book by Miss Vida, and she’s not sure she wants to take on the assignment. She’s only an amateur biographer, who deals with dead people and library archives. Her publications amount to a couple essays. She has no idea why Vida has contacted her, but she decides to go and see what all this is about.
So Vida Winter proceeds to tell her life story. Most of the book is contained in this story-within-a-story, and I found it much more interesting than the surrounding plot. Actually, when I first started the book, I’d almost given up on it before it got interesting. It’s really slow to start. It wasn’t until page 45 that I perked up. At page 50, I’d planned to turn my back on it if it didn’t get better. But after page 45, my interest was captured and held.
The mystery, of course, is whether or not Miss Winter is actually telling Miss Lea her true life story. She starts with the story of her parents, a really bizarre, twisted tale of kids with horrible sadistic tendencies. A rather gruesome scene of a 14 year old brother cutting his 5 year old sister’s arm with a rusty wire, and how she likes it and does the same to her other arm. Yeah. It wasn’t a gross scene – it was actually tastefully done, at least as much as one can expect with a gruesome scene like that, sort of reminded me of the ghost scene at the beginning of Wuthering Heights – but it certainly didn’t sound believable at all. I suppose maybe things like that might happen in real life, but usually, they don’t, and not everything that happens in real life is actually believable in fiction (ironically). Immediately, my thought was, “Okay, if this turns out that Miss Winter is lying, I’ll be okay with that. If this is supposed to be true, this is a stupid book.” And this is where I can’t go any further without a spoiler. In the end, I was partly satisfied. If you think about it, how could Miss Winter even know what her parents were like as 14 and 5 year olds? Even if she’s telling the truth about everything that happened in her lifetime, everything else is speculation, right? Sure, her mother may have gone to the asylum as an adult because she cut herself. Sure, she may be the daughter of an incestuous relationship. But to go into great detail about the rusty wire? Might that not have been an embellishment of the storyteller?
Only by telling myself that a lot of this was embellishment can I go through to the end and be satisfied. Only by reminding myself that The Thirteenth Tale is not meant to be realistic or literary, just fiction. There are so many layers of truth and fiction that, in the end, does it even matter?
So overall, I liked the book. It was decently written (though I got irked with a whole lot of second-person and a couple scenes that seemed to be solely for shock value), and closed cleanly. It isn’t a book that will end up on my bookshelf to reread in years to come, but I was reasonably satisfied and I was certainly entertained.