Tag Archives: problem of narrator

THE THIRTEENTH TALE by Diane Setterfield

I looked forward to reading Diane Setterfield’s novel THE THIRTEENTH TALE with some anticipation, because it sounded so intriguing. A reclusive author with a penchant for embroidering the truth, now read to tell all, bending the ear of a young woman with a tale of fascinating strangeness? It sounded wonderful.

So what caused me to put the novel down without finishing it, a thing I rarely do? In one sentence, I had trouble connecting with the characters. Why?

It is a tricky thing to write a novel about tales, because it makes the whole problem of engaging the reader much harder. The problem is with a shifting cast of characters that populate each story, meaning that the reader has less time to spend with then, and the author has less time to make them fully rounded personalities. Add to that the problem of narrative, in the sense of the stories being told by someone as opposed to being experienced directly, you run the risk of further distancing the reader.

To get around this problem, you either need quirky characters to tell your tales, as in Geoffrey Chaucer’s CANTERBURY TALES, or you need to write with a style so gorgeous, that the reader enjoys wallowing in a string of words, picked out with a poet’s flair and finesse.

Ms. Setterfield is a good stylist who writes readable prose, but it does not quite come up to the level of being gorgeous. And the character of Vida Winter, the narrator of these tales, while quirky enough to satisfy the most discriminating taste, did not have the voice to carry it off. Her narratives were curiously elegant and flat, lacking much of the personality we were told she had. And they left me cold.

So that is why I put the novel down. Which is a pity.

–Cynthia Haggard writes historical novels.  She has two completed manuscripts that will be published in the coming year. THWARTED QUEEN  is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear. FAMILY SPLINTERS is  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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