Category: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Folklore, Suspense, Romance, Book Review
On 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 and in steps an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a child.
Hours later, the dead girl stirs, takes and breath and returns to life.
Is it a miracle?
Is it magic?
And who does the little girl belong to?
The River Thames is at the heart of this story, along with those who live and work on or around it. The Swan, an ancient inn, sitting on the banks of the river is the focal point of the local community, where the tradition of storytelling thrives.
On solstice night, the longest night of the year, with the regulars gathered in the pub, an injured man carrying what looked like a doll but was soon discovered to be a drowned child, staggers through the door and falls to the floor, unconscious. Rita, the local nurse is sent for and after she has attended to the man’s injuries she checks on the child. Although she appears to be dead, Rita is confused. There were no outward signs to show what had happened to the child and none of the expected signs of drowning. And then, inexplicably, the child begins to breathe.
She stood in the doorway where the man had stood. The dead girl was in her arms.
Again? Was it time’s error? Were they drunk? Had they lost their wits? Too much had happened and their brains were full. They waited for the world to right itself.
The corpse opened its eyes.
The girl’s head swiveled.
Her gaze sent a wave through the room so strong that every eye felt its ripple, every soul was rocked on its mooring.
Time went unmeasured, and when the silence was at last broken, it was Rita who spoke. “I don’t know,” she said.
It was an answer to the question they were too stunned to ask—an answer to the question she could scarcely form herself.
The story of the girl who came back from the dead takes on a life of its own, discussed endlessly in The Swan, and spreading rapidly further afield. A couple whose child was kidnapped, a man searching for his granddaughter, a young woman hiding a guilty secret, all wonder and hope she is the child they are looking for and longing to find. Who this delicate otherworldly child who never speaks belongs too, and how she came to be in the river, forms the basis of the story.
Once Upon A River, set in the 19th century, is a slow but intricate and magical tale, with a good number of beautifully crafted and vividly portrayed diverse characters. The narrative alternates between each of their stories, following a winding course that perhaps seems a little too drawn out on occasion, but the strands are gradually woven together and the plot picks up momentum as the conclusion is in sight.
The writing is lyrical and extremely evocative, threaded throughout with magical realism, folklore, superstition and always the atmospheric setting makes its presence felt. The direction of the story isn’t obvious as it meanders, but like the river there may be more going on under the surface than is immediately apparent. I haven’t read anything quite like this before and, if you’ll pardon the pun, you just need to go with the flow, and be carried along where ever the story takes you.
I chose to read and review Once Upon A River courtesy of NetGalley and the author/publisher.
Diane Setterfield is a British author. Her bestselling 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, Bellman & Black (2013 is a genre-defying tale of rooks and Victorian retail. January 2019 sees the publication of her new title, Once Upon a River, which has been called ‘bewitching’ and ‘enchanting’.
Born in Englefield, Berkshire in 1964, Diane spent most of her childhood in the nearby 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 at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK. She left academia in the late 1990s to pursue writing.