Once Upon a Riverby Diane Setterfield Published 04 Dec 2018
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|Publisher||Atria/Emily Bestler Books|
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A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child.
Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.
Is it a miracle?
Is it magic?
Or can it be explained by science?
Replete with folklore, suspense and romance, as well as with the urgent scientific curiosity of the Darwinian age, Once Upon a River is as richly atmospheric as Setterfield’s bestseller The Thirteenth Tale.
"Once Upon a River" Reviews
Along the borders of this world lie others.
There are places you can cross.
This is one such place.
This is a beautiful story. It's a genre-crosser: something of a historical mystery told like a fairy tale with magical realism. Everything straddles the line between reality and the supernatural, and sometimes it steps over into the fantastical, which might be surprising for fans of Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale.
I think it works really well, though. I should point out that the story is very slow burn and that's how the whole book unfolds - there's no "aha!" moment when the pace suddenly starts racing. It's a gentle, often sad, story of the magic in the mundane, and the normal in the seemingly miraculous.
Setterfield sets the tale along the banks of a fictional River Thames in an unspecified time that feels a hundred years or so before ours. True to our own history, this time is rife with superstition and folklore, tales of ghosts and fortune-telling. This allows for some uncertainty over what is supernatural and what exists in the minds of superstitious people. Does Bess really have the ability to look into someone's soul and see their true self, or is she just a woman adept at reading people?
I think that's what makes this story so thrilling. The line between our reality and the possibility of the supernatural is a fine one. I love fairy tales that open your eyes to the many "magical" things in our own world.
The story follows many characters and is largely centred around an inn called The Swan. One night, an injured man stumbles into the inn carrying a dead child. A child who sometime later is alive. Not only is this a mystery in itself, but so is the child's identity. Where did she come from? Could she be the missing daughter of the Vaughans who disappeared two years earlier? Could she be the grandchild of Mr Armstrong? The child in question does not speak a word.
The rhythm of the train on the tracks suggested words to his overtired brain and he heard them as clearly as if an unseen person had pronounced them: Something is going to happen.
As with The Thirteenth Tale, Setterfield really emphasizes the power of stories to shape people. The lore believed by these characters plays into their everyday lives, defining them. They are all so well-drawn, living seemingly simple working class lives, but hiding dark secrets and traumas that will, of course, come back to haunt them. Perhaps literally.
This is a gorgeous fairy tale, woven with everything that gives fairy tales their timeless quality. It is a quieter, more grounded in reality version of Katherine Arden or Naomi Novik. The feel reminds me somewhat of 2012's The Snow Child, but with a very different setting and a bigger cast of characters.
Fans of quiet fairy tales about people and (maybe) magic should love this. Warnings for [spoilers removed]
There must be more to stories than you think.
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This may end up being a 5 star for me, so I'll digest this gorgeous, dreamy, heart-splitting book and get back to you with my full review.
*Thank you Atria Books for providing my review copy.
4.5 Stars rounded up to 5.
Thank you to the publisher Atria Books for providing an advance reader copy via NetGalley.
This is a very special and unique book that is one part folk tale, one part mystery and brewed with a touch of the supernatural. It takes place in England long ago astride the Thames River, which looms large in this story.
The Swan is a family run pub where the preoccupation is telling a really good story. The best stories take on a life of their own and are repeated and spread among the townspeople. On one fateful night during the winter's solstice something breathtaking and miraculous occurred at The Swan. A very large man roared as he stumbled into the door, face ravaged with bloody injuries and holding what appeared to be a large puppet of a young girl. Except, it wasn't a puppet. It was a girl of about four, wet from the river...and dead. Then something magical happens. Who is she? Why doesn't she speak? And how can it be that three different families honestly believe this child is their own? This was enough information alone for me to be lured into the tentacles of this book!
I've read another fine book from this author, "Bellman & Black", so already knew of Diane Setterfield's exquisite writing prowess, her brilliance in serving up a delicate supernatural flavor. My expectations were set and Ms. Setterfield met them. This is an epic and rich story that will keep you guessing until the end, fraught with emotion, compelling and likeable characters, and an Edgar Allen Poe-like feel. I won't go into too much more detail. as this is a book to be savored on your own.
We've all heard the expression, when discussing old Hollywood films, that "they don't make them like they used to". Well, Diane Setterfield is here to tell you that they don't write them like they used to either.
It's been a while since her last novel (the somewhat underwhelming Bellman & Black), so you'd be forgiven if Setterfield wasn't at the forefront of your mind. But when Once Upon a River hits the shelves in January 2019, that is very much going to change.
This is an old fashioned, beautifully written and constructed book with so many elements and layers it easily bears repeat reading. The main narrative drive of the book is derived from the injured stranger who bursts into an inn on the bank of the Thames one night, with a dead child in his arms. When the child comes back to life a few hours later, three distinctive plot threads spin out from there.
However, there are so many other characters, threads, moments and subplots the book is teeming, nay bursting, with richly detailed characters and minutiae. And those are all wonderful to read but when one seemingly throwaway moment returns to deliver an emotional gut punch, then you realise just how masterfully Setterfield has created this world and its inhabitants.
I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of this book and rather than devour it in a couple of days, as has been my 2018 wont, I made it last a full month, as I simply didn't want it to end.
This is the most long winded book I think I've ever read. It's been a long time since a book has given me feelings of dread every time I picked it up.
Although I've never read a book by this author, I was nonetheless excited to dive into this one based on the rave reviews for not only this book but for Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. Not every author and/or book is for everybody and this one was certainly not my glass of chocolate milk.
While the prose is without a doubt prolific, the story crawled at an excruciating pace with pages and pages of descriptive text. Some have commented that the prolonged details are necessary in the telling of the story, I humbly disagree. There are a ton of characters in this story and while they are all fleshed out to the nth degree, I didn't care about or relate to any of them.
There is a lot of magic, as well religious undertones in this story, both of which turned me off immediately as I tend to steer clear of those subjects.
I realize that I am in the tiniest of minority of people that feel this book fell way short of expectations while most every other reviewer fell in love with this book. I do not discourage readers from picking this one up for that reason alone.
2 Stars for the writing ⭐⭐
I was provided an ARC of this book by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Diane Setterfield has long been one of my favorite authors and her new novel does not disappoint. ONCE UPON A RIVER was everything I hoped it would be. Magical and mysterious and full of mayhem. Beautifully written (it seemed like I underlined every other sentence) and emotionally resonant (I cried several times). It is the story of three missing girls and three desperate families, set against the Thames, and just as meandering and wondrous as the river itself. One of its main characters--Robert Armstrong--has become one of my top three fictional men of all time. Once again Diane Setterfield has delivered a true reading experience. Simply put, it is a joy to read.