Title: Once Upon a River
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Page Count: 464
Publication Date: 2018
Category/Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Magic Realism, Mystery, Adult Fiction
Good Reads Rating: ★★★★☆ (3.95)
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4.0)
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.
This was a beautifully written story that was part fairytale and part historical fiction with an element of mystery thrown in for good measure and suspense.
Despite the white knuckle, paging turning moments the book overall is a slow burn. It pulls you in with it’s gentle narration that uncovers many hidden dark secrets and traumas that haunt each of the characters – sometimes literally. It is indeed hypnotic as the tale is spun like a gothic yarn as there are several separate threads embedded within the main story. There is no way to pull away from the power of each of their stories and how they shape each one of them. Taking it all in is akin to being a moth drawn to the flame.
The story begins along the banks of the River Thames in 1887 and is rife with superstition and folklore, tales of ghosts and fortune-telling. The lines are blurred for what is supernatural and what just exists in each person’s minds. This is what I believe allows for the story to become absolutely magical and utterly beautiful.
“As is well-known, when the moon hours lengthen, human beings come adrift from the regularity of their mechanical clocks. They nod at noon, dream in waking hours, open their eyes wide to the pitch-black night. It is a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, and the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen.”
I love fairy tales that open your eyes to the many “magical” things in our own world, bringing the mundane and creating something more from it. It is also an ode to storytelling and this tale emphasizes the power of stories to shape people which is one of my favorite aspects of both reading and writing.
“And now, dear reader, the story is over. It is time for you to cross the bridge once more and return to the world you came from. This river, which is and is not the Thames, must continue flowing without you. You have haunted here long enough, and besides, you surely have rivers of your own to attend to?”
Highly recommend this book to those who love fantasy, fairytales, gothic stories, and delving a bit deeper into other’s hidden pasts and backstories.