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Showbiz: Gothic drama crammed with creaking doors and secret alcoves; This week's showbiz team: Anuji Varma & Roz Laws Books DIANE SETTERFIELD The Thirteenth Tale (Orion, pounds 6.99).

Byline: by Lorne Jackson

IN the cynical world in which we live, writers are confronted by the same problem as conmen and confidence tricksters.

All of the above find it increasingly difficult to dupe suckers with their artfully constructed lies.

Writers, on the whole, have dealt with this problem by turning to post-modernism.

Readers weren't willing to take their stuff seriously? Well, neither would they!

The po-mo bunch undermined the narrative structure with crafty gags, little injokes and plenty of irony.

That is not something Diane Setterfield believes in.

Her first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, is a big, old-fashioned Gothic romp of tragic dimensions, where people fall in love passionately, enact desperate deeds and suffer terrible fates.

Irony shminory.

This is a book of lusters, lurkers and lovers, where most of the protagonists at one point or another end up hiding in secret alcoves, harbouring their shady motives.

If you haven't guessed by now, then you should be made aware that Setterfield loves her Victorian melodrama.

The Thirteenth Tale is awash with references to Jane Eyre, The Woman In White and Wuthering Heights.

When a 'thing' enters this novel, you can be assured that it's going to go bump in the night.

This is a ghost story, of sorts.

It's about the terrible stuff that happens in our lives, then threatens to haunt us for ever.

Margaret Lea is certainly haunted.

An only child, when young she discovered that she had a twin sister who died at birth.

Never talked about at home, this tragedy has put a strain on her relationship with her mother.

However, Margaret is close to her father, working with him in his quiet second-hand book shop.

It is a life of suffocating routine and repression, which is only broken when Margaret receives a letter from England's most famous living author, the mysterious Vida Winter.

For some reason, Winter wants Margaret to write her biography. Since absolutely nothing is known about Miss Winter, she suggests that Margaret come and stay with her in her Yorkshire mansion.

Margaret travels to the secluded house and meets the reclusive novelist, who turns out to be a sort of Miss Havisham figure.

She proceeds to tell her story.

And what a story it is!

Tempestuous Starting many generations ago, we meet the beautiful tempestuous Isabelle, her brute of a brother, Charlie, and her twin daughters (yup, twins, again), Emmeline and Adeline.

The two young girls receive no formal education, spending their entire young lives in a grand mansion in Banbury, where they become as wild as wolves - and just as dangerous.

But what has this all to do with Miss Winter?

Clearly there is a mystery to be solved.

Setterfield has written a story which is melodramatic in both events and language.

At times the author seems to be in danger of letting her tale escape the confines of credibility.

And while she is clearly adept at poetic phrasing, her language at times borders on the hysterical.

This could also be said of many novels from 150 years ago.

But Setterfield is writing about the present day, and it's difficult to believe in her swooning heroines in this age of female emancipation.

These are all minor quibbles and the author should be commended for providing a page-turning read in an era of smug literary posturing.

All though at times her characters and language become shrill, that is preferable to safe, dry modernism.

The heir to Jane Eyre? Not quite.

But close enough.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Nov 25, 2007
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