Title: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication day: Dec 04, 2018
In a nutshell (Publisher):
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.
One night, when the regulars at the Swann Inn gathered for an evening of storytelling, they were interrupted by an injured stranger who had, in his arms, a drowned little girl. She was an image of perfection. Rita, their local nurse and midwife, pronounced the little girl dead. Then miraculously, she started breathing and opened her eyes. But she couldn’t speak, and nobody knew who she was.
The story became the talk of the town and reached the ears of three families who believed that this perfect little girl was theirs.
The Vaughans believed this girl was their missing child, Amelia; the Armstrongs believed she was their granddaughter, Emily, and Lily White, haunted by memories of her past, said the girl was her dead sister, Ann, who had returned for a revenge.
So was she who they thought her to be?
There was nothing I didn’t like about this book. I loved the richly-detailed characters, and getting to know them through their stories, secrets and fears. There were Rita and Henry, whose friendship I loved; the kind Mr. Robert and little Ben (he played a small role in the story but I have a soft spot for him) whom he saved, and the ever faithful and loving Vaughans. I was also drawn to this ferryman named Quietly and of course, just who. is. this. mysterious. girl? She said nothing, was silent throughout, but had the whole village (and me) stirred.
I was so enchanted by the Thames and immersed in its going-ons I didn’t want to leave. I fell in love with all that’s in Thames, and the people in it – the stories they share, the lives they live and the love they have for each other.
The story and mystery kept me on tenterhooks on every page. Setterfield didn’t reveal who this mysterious girl was easily, rather she masterfully layered and weaved the multiple stories of the villagers while slowly allowing you to connect the dots. She pulled and tugged you at the right places at the right time. And whenever you thought you got it figured it out, she’d throw you a curveball. Now, tell me this isn’t great storytelling! I’m so thankful I got to read this. Ms Setterfield is definitely a masterful storyteller! I devoured every word, every page, every chapter of this novel.
If you plan to read this, be ready to be transported to a world of folklore and science, and magic and myth, all in one breathtaking novel. It builds up slowly but beautifully. I loved how dreamy and magical the story was, yet at the same time had real and relatable subjects such as life and death, the living and the dead, and love and hope.
Here’s a Reading Group Guide for book clubs.
Thank you Netgalley and Atria Books for a free eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
*Quotes included here are from an advanced readers copy and are subject to change upon final publication.
Have you read this? What did you think of it? If you haven’t, do you plan to read it? Have you read her other book, The Thirteenth Tale?
Till then, HAPPY READING!