The Thirteenth Tale

A mistake many reviewers make is to assume that a book they enjoy is good, and one they do not enjoy is bad. I did not enjoy The thirteenth tale much, but at the same time I don’t wish to say it is a bad book. I imagine it has much to offer some readers.

The book is in the gothic style, and that means it has a slow plot, that it meanders about the place, and that its twists are so unlikely you need to go in with a forgiving mindset or not bother at all.  I’m not saying that slow plots are of themselves bad, merely that if you have not read the book and are considering it: be aware it’s going to require a patient approach. This is not a thriller.  This is barely a mystery.  It’s a mood piece.  That it is gloomy and taking ages to get moving is part of the point of the exercise.

You know the plot is gothic because the characters keep banging on about Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, although from what I recall of these two earlier works, their protagonists do not, themselves, bang on about their copies of The Castle of Otranto. Perhaps they do. Perhaps that’s why Catherine in Northanger Abbey is so funny? I don’t know.  But yes, ctrumbling house, crumbling morals, crumbling family. To be Gothic it needs decay, just like a Western needs cowpokes. Does having more cowpokes poking their cows make it a better Western?  Clearly no. Similarly the decay in Gothic is meant to have a  point.  I’m not sure what that was in The thirteenth tale.  I’m not asking for something as literal as the collapse of the House of Usher, but things felt a little unremitting for the sake of being unremitting at times here. Again, you need to be forgiving of the book.

People in Gothic stories are weirdly fragile, and modern readers are not patient of this.  You are meant to care about the narratorial character, who is haunted by her loss of her sister, not even knowing that she’s lost her sister. This is meant to evoke pity and empathy, even though you, as a sensible modern reader, know that real people don’t generally act like that, and that if you met a woman in her twenties being perpetually maudalin about the loss of her infant twin, you’d suggest she seeks out a skilled therapist.  She’s a character who is broken, and likes being broken, and feels a camraderie with the other lead character because, she believes, that character is broken in the same what she is.  There’s the cathartic moment near the end where they connect, and I’m sorry but I didn’t feel it, because I just couldn’t accept fragility of the two characters as believable.  So, again, if you’ve not read it and are thinking about it, you are entering a world where a single incident in childhood smashes to pieces all of the resillience of a character.  And not one character: character after character is broken beyond their capacity to attempt self-repair in this book.

The lead characters feel like Mary Sues, and that might be a criticism if you disapprove of them. The author agressively dismisses the idea in advance, and shouting “Mary Sue!” is easy and juvenile and I hate reviewers who do it.  And yes, that means at this point I am disliking my own review, because it talks about Mary Sues, and that shows that tendency of laziness which I find annoying. I’m happy for authors to have personal-insertion characters, but here the problem is that at least three of the characters seem to be the same character, with a name change and a slight twist. Indeed, if you are unforgiving, five characters are the same character.  Now, you may answer “Yes, but that’s a literary device.” and I’d agree that yes, it is part of the the point of the whole thing, but I didn’t enjoy it.  And you might answer “That you didn’t enjoy it does not make it bad.” and I would agree.  My point here is the caution that if you have not read the book, you may feel that it offers you the usual consolations of the novel: an interesting plot, a detailed setting, well-developed characters.  Here you won’t actually get any of these.

So, why is it not a bad novel? Well, it evokes a mood, and that’s part of what gothic novels are meant to do.  Places crumble. Standards decay.  People go mad.  All of this is handled quite well and if it didn’t move me, that’s my fault. The author uses words well. She’s a technician, when it comes to her prose. I’d like to see her second novel, particularly if she chooses and alternative genre, because its not clear if some of the things I didn’t enjoy about The thriteenth tale are there as genre conventions, or are part of her authorial voice.