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Book to Film: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Stories doesn't need silence. They need words. Without them, they grow pale, sicken and die. And then they haunt you.

These words and the rest it entailed remained with me after I finished this rather somber book. The Thirteenth Tale is your usual blend of English Gothic mystery about ghosts and haunted manors and dysfunctional old family.

Margaret Lea, a some time biographer working on his father's antiquarian shop, travels to Oxfordshire to meet the famous novelist Vida Winter, who once published a book, Thirteen Tales of Change of Desperation which strangely only contained twelve stories. Will Vida, who is known not to speak the truth about her origins and for being a recluse, ever reveal the thirteenth tale?

This one is a plethora of book quotes, if you ask me. It is like one quarter book musings and three quarters mystery, an aspect that made this an interesting read, perhaps a rather definitive style of Diane Setterfield. I love how she understands the enthralling world of books.

The Oxfordshire weather lent an apt atmosphere, infusing itself to the undulating waves of the story. The languid pace and decay brings out an effect of broken nostalgia. Oftentimes, Setterfield's description make little portraits of scenes similar to moving stills like when a hitched silence follows a tragedy and things slither into slow motion.

It is perhaps one of the books I couldn't read in one sitting. There's something that drives me away and instantly draws me consequently into it.

Some passages needs to settle before I could start reading what happened next. Also, there is one particular symbolism which rather escapes me, that I couldn't firmly grasp, perhaps because of the nature of my lone birth.

There is also a sense of being left out hanging. It was a true mystery it seems, not so much precise and not much for us to be so gratified.

Still, it wouldn't stop me wishing to read real Vida Winter books. I was that intrigued with her tales and was more drawn to her present formidable presence rather than her own telling of the distant past. Of how she twists words in her stories, the way she sees truth and how she ended as mysteriously as she started.

Around end of last year, the book was created into a television film airing on BBC (I swear they always make adaptations of my favorite books). It begun outright with Margaret's trip to northern England skipping the rather interesting musings about books and truth at the start of the book.

Vanessa Redgrave plays the elusive Vida Winter and she plays it beautifully, with just the right hint of glamour while also exhibiting vulnerability. For me, Margaret seemed more fleshed out emotionally rather than physically that I could not really imagine what she looked like so I did not have preconceived notions with Olivia Colman being her.

It jumped right into Vida's story of the distant past and captured the gloominess and chilly air of Setterfield's world. As the tale and suspense unfolded along with the abandoned beauty of Angelfield, I was more riveted to the on screen presence of the twins, played by Madeleine Power. Her face is so arresting and her features and expressions fitted right into the oddness of the twins' characters.

I was almost regretful to have them gone as the plot progressed to their growing up. But then Sophie Turner turned up and it fortunately went uphill from there (the number of times I get disappointed when a child character playing a role brilliantly turns into a rather lackluster grown-up character are one too many). The disheveled appearance of the young women in their floral blouses and billowing skirts, methinks, portrayed almost enchantingly their innocence and their neglect.

The film left out a lot (due to its short running time), important ones by consequence. Supporting characters like Aurelius Love and Ambrose Proctor have been left wanting, even appearing suspicious. The bittersweet aspect of their own stories weren't much focused on. But the heightened tension and new retelling almost filled what otherwise would be a void. That and Vanessa Redgrave's omnipresence.

It was a hauntingly beautiful, perhaps typical even, English mystery film without the idyllic facade to cover secrets, only the power of twisted truths and words.


Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise — she doesn't know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter’s dozens of novels.

Late one night while pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.

As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter’s account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story.

Both women will have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets... and the ghosts that haunt them still.

Title: The Thirteenth Tale
Author: Diane Setterfield
Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Gothic
Published: September 2006
Publisher: Atria Books
Rating: ♨♨ (4 cups - A love letter to books and stories mingled with English mystery.)

Television Film Title: The Thirteenth Tale
Director: James Kent
Release Date: 2013 (BBC Two)
Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Olivia Colman, Sophie Turner
Rating: ♨♨♨  (4 cups - It was haunting, nostalgic, and atmospheric.)

{film stills. grande caps}


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