Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on December 4, 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Fiction
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Years ago I read and fell in love with Diane Setterfield’s bestselling novel, The Thirteenth Tale. Setterfield’s storytelling abilities and her atmospheric settings thoroughly captivated me and so when I read that she had a new novel coming out, Once Upon a River, I couldn’t get over to Netgalley fast enough so that I could request it.
I was a little nervous going in that my expectations were way too high just because I loved The Thirteenth Tale so much, but those fears were alleviated almost immediately as I was pulled into Once Upon a River’s magical tale right away. The story itself follows several families who live in a town located near the Thames River and how their lives changed forever one winter night when an injured man staggered into the Swan Inn with a dead little girl in his arms.
The local nurse is summoned to examine both the man and the girl, and even though all signs indicate that the little girl is, in fact, dead, a few moments later, the girl inexplicably starts breathing again and opens her eyes. No one can explain what has happened and the girl, who no one recognizes, including the man who found her and brought her to the inn, cannot speak so in addition to her miraculous and unexplainable return from the dead, her identity is also a mystery.
There is speculation that she is the long lost daughter of the Vaughn family, whose child was kidnapped two years before and hasn’t been seen since, but there is also the possibility that she could be the grandchild of Mr. Armstrong, whose mother was rumored to have killed herself and tried to drown her child in the river.
The townspeople are left with endless questions and so the search is on to figure out who the little girl is, what happened to her, while in the backs of everyone’s mind is the real question: Was she really dead and if so, why isn’t she still dead?
I loved that Setterfield chooses to set Once Upon a River around the Thames River and that her version of the Thames has an almost mythological, supernatural quality to it. My favorite bit of folklore attributed to the river in this tale is Mr. Quietly, the boatman who appears to those who find themselves in distress in the river. It is said that Quietly will either escort you safely to land if it’s not your time to go, but that if it is your time, he will escort you to the “other side of the river.” At its heart, Once Upon a River is about stories and folklore and how they can shape and influence people’s lives and so the river and all of the lore surrounding it really helps to lend an atmospheric quality to the story as a whole.
The story is actually so atmospheric and embedded with lore that for the characters in the story, the lines between the real and the imagined at times become blurred and this adds to the appeal of the story because Once Upon a River also contains this mystery about the little girl that must be solved. It’s hard to talk about the mystery without giving away too much, but I will say that Setterfield crafts the mystery in such a way that it unfolds almost like a fairytale. In fact, the whole book almost reads as if it’s a fairytale. It has that quality of magical realism that we often see in books like those of Alice Hoffman or even Neil Gaiman.
I also found the cast of characters Setterfield creates to be an endearing bunch. The appearance of the mysterious little girl opens up a lot of old wounds for those in the town who have lost a child. It actually hurts to watch so many people get their hopes up about this little girl, knowing that she can only belong to one family, which means many others will end up disappointed and crushed by the loss all over again.
In contrast to those families who are haunted by this girl, there are also the other townsfolk who, although they aren’t really the focus of Once Upon a River, they still add a richness to the story because they all fancy themselves storytellers and they all latch on to the events of that fateful night and spin tale after tale, adding whatever creative details suit the purposes of their individual stories. The storytellers ultimately end up infusing the girl’s story into the existing lore of the river, further blurring those lines between the real and the magical/supernatural.
I’d also like to speak a bit on the pacing of the novel. If you’re expecting a fast-paced thrill ride as the mystery in Once Upon a River unfolds, you will probably be disappointed. This is a mystery that unfolds at its own pace, where the reader is meant to savor each detail and each clue as they are revealed. You’re meant to observe all of these seemingly unrelated characters and how they each share a possible connection to the little girl. Yes, there are plenty of twists and turns and unexpected surprises, but the reveal builds slowly over time. I will say that I typically prefer my mysteries to be fast-paced, but Setterfield makes the slower pace really work here. I don’t think the story would have had such a magical feel to it if the pace had been faster.
One last element of the story that really appealed to me was that it also included the use of scientific experimentation to try to explain away the unexplainable. I loved that although Nurse Rita feels the same draw to this little girl that everyone else feels, her scientific mind won’t let her just accept what has happened and move on. She won’t be satisfied until she has tested every possible hypothesis for why the girl was dead but then wasn’t. I really liked the balance between Rita’s scientific curiosity and the supernatural elements throughout Once Upon a River.
If you’re looking for an atmospheric mystery that reads like a fairytale, look no further than Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River. It’s truly an exquisite piece of storytelling.
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.