A dying writer bids a young bookshop assistant to write her biography.
Margaret Lea grew up in a household of mourning, but she never knew why until the day she opened a box of papers underneath her parent’s bed and found the birth and death certificates of a twin sister of whom she never knew. It is the coincidence of twins in the life of Vida Winter, Britain’s most famous writer, that convinces Margaret to leave her post at her father’s rare-books store and travel to the dying writer’s Yorkshire estate. There, she hears a story no one else knows: who Vida Winter really is. For decades, the author has wildly fabricated answers to personal questions in interviews. Now Vida wants to tell the true story. And what a story it is, replete with madness; incest; a pair of twins who speak a private language; a devastating fire; a ghost that opens doors and closes books; a baby abandoned on a doorstep in the rain; a page torn from a turn-of-the-century edition of Jane Eyre; a cake-baking gentle giant; skeletons; topiaries; blind housekeepers; and suicide. As the master storyteller nears death, Margaret has yet to understand why she is the one Vida chose to record her tale. And is it a tall tale? One last great fiction to leave for her reading public? Only Margaret, who begins to catch glimpses of her own dead twin in the eternal gloom of the Winter estate, can sort truth from longing and lies from guilt. Setterfield has crafted an homage to the romantic heroines of du Maurier, Collins and the Brontës. But this is no postmodern revision of the genre. It is a contemporary gothic tale whose excesses and occasional implausibility (Vida’s “brother” is the least convincing character) can be forgiven for the thrill of the storytelling.
Setterfield’s debut is enchanting Goth for the 21st century.