I knew how it was for him. It was easier now that I was grown up than when I was a child. How much harder birthdays had been in the house. Presents hidden overnight in the shed, not from me, but from my mother, who could not bear the sight of them. The inevitable headache was her jealously guarded rite of remembrance, one that made it impossible to invite other children to the house, impossible, too, to leave her for the treat of a visit to the zoo or the park. My birthday toys were always quiet ones. Cakes were never homemade, and the leftovers had to be divested of their candles and icing before they could be put in the tin for the next day.
Happy birthday? Father whispered the words, Happy Birthday, hilariously, right in my ear. We played silent card games where the winner pulled gleeful faces and the loser grimaced and slumped, and nothing, not a peep, not a splutter, could be heard in the room above our heads. In between games, up and down he went, my poor father, between the silent pain of the bedroom and the secret birthday downstairs, changing his face from jollity to sympathy, from sympathy back to jollity, in the stairwell.
Unhappy birthday. From the day I was born, grief was always present. It settled like dust upon the household. It covered everyone and everything; it invaded us with every breath we took. It shrouded us in our own separate miseries.
Why couldn’t she love me? Why did my life mean less to her than my sister’s death?
The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield, is the story of Margaret Lea and Vida Winter. Margaret is a surviving twin – her identical twin died soon after birth. She feels as though in losing her sister, she has lost her other half. In another household, she might have recovered from the loss of her ‘other self’. But because her mother is unable to let go of the pain of losing her daughter enough to get to know, love, and appreciate the daughter left behind, the surviving twin grows into a woman feeling that she is incomplete.
Vida Winter is a reclusive author, best known for her much beloved collection of twelve stories, and has spent the last 60s years telling lie after lie to those who want to know more about her. She hides her truth, guards it jealously, and will not allow anyone to get close to the real her. That is, until she decides to have Margaret write her biography as she lies on her deathbed. To Margaret, she is honest, though unwilling to answer questions, or to tell the story in any other way than just how she sees fit. And what a story, full of Gothic mysteries ala’ Jane Eyre. This Thirteenth Tale tells the story of a mansion, a ghost, a nanny, identical twins ignored by their bizarre mother and uncle, a housekeeper and a gardener, and various sundry characters. Margaret finds herself being pulled deeper into the story, even as she tries to solve the puzzles she finds along the way.
At about 3/4 of the way through, I thought I had this book all figured out, and all that was left was for the author to wrap it up. I was wrong, she had a few genuine surprises left for me, which I liked. I picked this book up as part of the 342,745 Ways to Herd Cats reading challenge, and after a bit of a slow start, I found it hard to put down. A very good read, that I would highly recommend.