On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the river Thames, an extraordinary event takes place. The regulars are telling stories to while away the dark hours, when the door bursts open on a grievously wounded stranger. In his arms is the lifeless body of a small child. Hours later, the girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation? These questions have many answers, some of them quite dark indeed.
Those who dwell on the river bank apply all their ingenuity to solving the puzzle of the girl who died and lived again, yet as the days pass the mystery only deepens. The child herself is mute and unable to answer the essential questions: Who is she? Where did she come from? And to whom does she belong? But answers proliferate nonetheless.
Three families are keen to claim her. A wealthy young mother knows the girl is her kidnapped daughter, missing for two years. A farming family reeling from the discovery of their son’s secret liaison, stand ready to welcome their granddaughter. The parson’s housekeeper, humble and isolated, sees in the child the image of her younger sister. But the return of a lost child is not without complications and no matter how heartbreaking the past losses, no matter how precious the child herself, this girl cannot be everyone’s. Each family has mysteries of its own, and many secrets must be revealed before the girl’s identity can be known.
Once Upon a River is a glorious tapestry of a book that combines folklore and science, magic and myth. Suspenseful, romantic, and richly atmospheric, the beginning of this novel will sweep you away on a powerful current of storytelling, transporting you through worlds both real and imagined, to the triumphant conclusion whose depths will continue to give up their treasures long after the last page is turned.
What a great story! Not many books draw my attention and spellbound me from the first to the last page. Diane Setterfield’s prose is MAGICAL, ATMOSPHERIC, and reminiscent of Poe, Grimm, Dickens, Bronte, and other greats. This story is LITERARY FICTION at its finest, woven with HISTORICAL FACTS. What I loved most about the novel are layers of stories revolving around a single body of water as ancient as time, the river THAMES. On the banks of the Thames at Radcot, deep-rooted FOLKTALES, much as the river itself, twine deep connections in townspeople’s lives as they try to make sense of recent tragedies.
All small towns have a favorite watering hole and the old inn called SWAN is such a place where people gather for drinks, the comfort of others, and to tell a few stories. Swan’s visitors are known for their STORYTELLING. Even the inn’s owner and her family have quite a few tales to tell. But are the stories about strange occurrences on the river folklore or rivulets of truth? The FERRYMAN, a seaman who appears on the Thame at the hour of victims distress to rescue or ferry their souls to another world, is a popular myth propagated by locals. Imaginative storytelling takes place at the Swan, but none like the story about to unfold.
In the dead of a midwinter night, a severely wounded man stumbles into Swan with a supposedly dead girl in his arms. Moments later, she miraculously awakens from the dead. Like wildfire, news of the girl spreads across the village. Who is she? Ah! Does anyone truly know? Three families have recently lost a daughter or sister, and believe the young girl is theirs. AMELIA, ALICE, ANN… which one is she? No one seems certain. But how can they not be? Are resemblances that fine between the girl and the missing three? Through desperate eyes, each family claims the girl is their missing.
My favorite characters are Rita (the town’s nurse) and Daunt (a local photographer). Daunt’s character is loosely based on an 18th-century photographer, HENRY TAINT. Ms. Setterfield delves into Mr. Taint’s WET COLLODION PHOTOGRAPHY within the story. Impeded by personal misgivings, Daunt and Rita’s relationship ebb and flow, sometimes passionately. They are the objective eyes of three families affected by the mysterious girl’s appearance, a saga which inspires Daunt and Rita’s desires.
Once Upon a River is CAPTIVATING, MAGICAL, HEARTRENDING, ROMANTIC, a PAGE-TURNER with folklore, fact, and fiction. I highly recommend Mrs. Setterfield’s novel, one of my best 2019 reads.
Diane Setterfield is a British author. Her debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale (2006) was published in 38 countries worldwide and has sold more than three million copies. It was number one in the New York Times hardback fiction list for three weeks and is enjoyed as much for being ‘a love letter to reading’ as for its mystery and style. Her second novel is Bellman & Black (2013), an unusual genre-defying meditation on workaholism, Victorian mourning ritual and rooks, and her third, Once Upon a River, will be published in early 2019.
Born in rural Berkshire, Diane spent most of her childhood in the village of Theale. After schooldays at Theale Green, Diane studied French Literature at the University of Bristol. Her PhD was on autobiographical structures in André Gide’s early fiction. She taught English at the Institut Universitaire de Technologie and the Ecole nationale supérieure de Chimie, both in Mulhouse, France, and later lectured in French in the UK. She left academia in the late 1990s to pursue writing.
The Thirteenth Tale was acquired by Heyday Films and adapted for television by the award-winning playwright and scriptwriter, Christopher Hampton. Starring Vanessa Redgrave and Olivia Colman, it was filmed in North Yorkshire and broadcast by BBC2 in 2013.
Diane now lives in Oxford by the Thames. When not writing she reads widely, and when not actually reading she is usually talking or thinking about reading. She is, she says, ‘a reader first, a writer second.’
Author’s Website: https://www.dianesetterfield.com/profile/
Photos: Courtesy of Mr. E. W. Cooke and Henry Taunt (1880)