We book lovers have things in common, and Margaret Lea, the heroine of Diane Setterfield's heralded debut novel, is one of us. So besotted is she by books that she makes sure she is sitting down whenever she reads, so as not to fall over and hurt herself while engrossed in a story. Margaret works in her father's bookshop, reading 19th-century novels and writing the occasional biography of obscure literary figures. The most exciting thing in Margaret's life is a family secret she discovered as a child that has branded her like a scar.
Then one day she receives a letter requesting her services as a biographer from Vida Winter, an author of such magnitude that 22 biographers have already attempted (and failed) to write her life story. Vida has told any number of tales about her life, but only now, says Vida, is she prepared to tell the truth. During their collaboration, which takes place mostly in a library of any book lover's dream, they manage to work through both of their stories, alongside a small cast of dutiful servants and one canny feline in the present, and a large cast of twins, ghosts and one wily governess in the past.
Setterfield gives us a fairy tale complete with a giant and abandoned babies, a gothic suspense novel with a creepy family estate and crazy relatives, and a ghost story with disappearing books and a girl in the mist. But more than that, Setterfield has provided a rarity: a beautifully written novel with a swift plot, atmospheric setting and witty dialogue that combine to provide a read that will leave any book lover well satisfied.
Publishing simultaneously in 28 countries, The Thirteenth Tale is going to make Setterfield, a former academic living in England, a very busy woman. Not only is she scheduled for a 14-city tour in the States, she'll need to write her next novel quickly, because there is no doubt that we book lovers will be clamoring for more.
Kristy Kiernan's first novel will be published in 2007 by Berkley.