By Tina Jordan
Updated September 08, 2006 04:00 AM
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Imagine a plain brown sparrow dueling a gaudily plumed parrot: That’s what happens when Margaret Lea, biographer and daughter of a London bookseller, accepts a commission — or is it a challenge? — from Vida Winter, ”England’s best-loved writer,” to write her life story. But the flamboyant Winter has been embellishing and embroidering her past for so long that it’s not entirely clear what’s true and what’s not.

As she stays at Angelfield, the author’s ghost-riddled Yorkshire estate, Lea carefully combs through the many strands of Winter’s history, trying to figure out exactly where the truth lies. Is Vida Winter — who long ago legally changed her name — really one of the infamously wild March twins whose upper-class parents teetered on the brink of ruin by the time the girls were born? And how much is Lea’s own infatuation with the project due to the fact that she too is a twin, a surviving conjoined twin whose sister died at their separation? (”My scar. My half-moon. Pale silver-pink, a nacreous translucence. The line that divides.”)

Diane Setterfield’s spooky, gloom-infused work lovingly invokes both Jane Eyre and Rebecca (indeed, the name Winter is clearly meant as an homage to Daphne du Maurier), but the mystery is very much her own. Pitch-perfect as it is, though, The Thirteenth Tale loses momentum in the last hundred pages, dragging out what should have been a swift knife thrust of a conclusion.