888 Challenge #3
Margaret Lea has never read anything by Britain’s most popular living novelist, Vida Winter. That changes after she receives a letter from Vida, who’s read one of Margaret’s biographical essays and wants her to write a full-length book - about her. It could well be the chance of a lifetime, for Vida has given as many versions of her early life as she has interviews, and to be in possession of the truth would be quite a coup if Vida will actually reveal it. Soon afterwards, Margaret find a book by Vida Winter in a locked cabinet in her father’s antiquarian bookshop. It’s value derives from the fact that almost all copies of that edition were recalled when it was discovered that a mistake had been made: It was called Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation but in fact contained only twelve.
As Margaret devours all of Vida’s works, the thought stays with her that she might be able to uncover the missing thirteenth tale. But when she arrives in the wintry wilds of Yorkshire, the ailing Miss Winter makes it clear that her story will be told one way: Her way. No questions, no leaping ahead, just Margaret obediently listening to her tale of unhealthy relationships in the maybe-haunted tumbledown house called Angelfield. When opportunities arise Margaret goes investigating on her own and uncovers more mysteries. Is Vida’s home also haunted? Why did the Angelfield governess disappear without a trace? What are the origins of Aurelius Love, who was once upon a time a baby abandoned on the Angelfield estate? And how much of the truth is Vida actually telling?
If ever there was a perfect novel for bibliophiles, it’s this. A love of books permeates the whole: Margaret had spent her whole life surrounded and comforted by books. Vida had made a career out of writing them. The latter’s life story is unfolded largely in the library. The many mysterious things included a story missing from a book, a page from a book, and a secret hidden in a library. And this:
“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”It would be hard not to love a book narrated by a character who loves books as much as does Margaret, even if it wasn’t so entrancing as this. I was a little jealous of her, actually, for being able to bury herself in books and ignore the rest of the world. And I was in awe of her for successfully leaping to the solution to the mystery; it was something I doubt I would ever have thought of. Vida was an interesting character, not easy either to like or dislike but a clever spinner of stories, and once the story of Angelfield is completed I could understand why she was so reluctant to reveal the truth. The way in which she told her tale gave a Gothic atmosphere to the mysteries at Angelfield, with horrors hinted at or implied and the reader’s imagination left to provide the rest. It wasn’t until Margaret hit upon the truth that I realised just how skillful she had been. And when the truth was finally out, there was just enough of the supernatural left to satisfy those who were glad to hear Vida announce that she was going to tell a ghost story.
Thankfully Margaret believes in finishing a story by tying up all the loose ends, accounting for the fates of all the characters from the long-lost governess to the cat, as well as the thing which started it all - the thirteenth tale.