The Thirtheenth Tale

Every once in a while you stumble across a book that will touch you deeply. Not in the “oh my gosh, this is such a fantastic book” kind of way, but on a much deeper emotional level. It doesn’t happen all that often – yet in the past few months it happened to me. And the book was Diane Setterfield’s THE THIRTEENTH TALE. For those of you who haven’t heard of the novel, here’s the backcover blurb:

All children mythologize their birth … So begins the prologue of reclusive author Vida Winter’s beloved collection of stories, long famous for the mystery of the missing thirteenth tale. The enigmatic Winter has always kept her violent and tragic past a secret. Now old and ailing, she summons a biographer to tell the truth about her extraordinary life: Margaret Lea, a young woman for whom the secret of her own birth remains an ever-present pain.

Disinterring the life she meant to bury for good, Vida mesmerizes Margaret with the power of her storytelling. Hers is a tale of gothic strangeness, featuring the Angelfield family – including the beautiful and willful Isabelle, and the feral twins Adeline and Emmaline – a ghost, a governess, and a devastating fire. Struck by a curious parallel between their stories, Margaret demands the truth from Vida, and together they confront the ghosts that have haunted them.

I listened to the truly wonderful audio book version read by Ruthie Henshall as Margaret and Lynn Redgrave as Vida Winter. THE THIRTEENTH TALE is a fascinating novel, but it was not the story itself that touched me so much.

It were the twins.

I’ve always been fascinated by twins, and there are twins in almost all of my earlier, unpublished fiction. Yet what gave THE THIRTEENTH TALE such an emotional punch for me was the fact that this is also a story about lost twins and lone twins. There were times when I had to stop the CD because I was crying so much and just couldn’t take it anymore.

For you see, I’m a lone twin, too.

My sister died at our birth. I thought I had dealt with this, but while listening to THE THIRTEENTH TALE all my sorrow, all those feelings of loss and utter, utter loneliness burst forth again.

I read several interviews with Setterfield and eventually I stumbled across a reference to the Lone Twin Network and to Joan Woodward’s book THE LONE TWIN, a study in twin bereavement with first-person accounts by people who lost their twins at birth, during childhood, or in adult life. I ordered the book, read parts of it, and cried several evenings as a result of it. But oh my gosh, it was such a revelation on so many levels. It felt so liberating to allow myself to experience those feelings of sorrow and loss and to acknowledge that they will always be part of me. To acknowledge that on some subconscious level I do indeed remember my sister and miss her so very much.

And so on some days I allow myself again to look into the mirror and to wonder what she would have been like.

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