Book: “Once Upon a River” by Diane Setterfield
Publishing Info: Atria/Emily Bestler Books, December 2018
Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher!
Book Description: 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?
Review: I’ve heard the name “Diane Setterfield” tossed around here and there over the last few years. Her novels, that often combine fantastical elements and historical settings, are the type that would likely appeal to me, so she’ll pop up on lists here and there that I glance through. All that said, for some reason or another, I’ve never actually taken the time to pick up one of her books. Big mistake! Apparently, I needed someone to take the choice out of my hands, so I’m very thankful for the publisher sending me a copy and giving my butt a good kick towards this excellent book and author.
There is an inn on a river. An inn where late nights are full of stories, tellers and listeners all gathering together over their beers to share new and familiar tales. Until one night, a story unfolds at their feet with the unexpected appearance of a little girl, apparently dead until…she’s not. But who is she? Where did she come from? Everyone has their own story, their own connection to this strange young girl. But what is the truth?
The very first thing that struck me is the writing tone of this book. In my opinion, any story that is going to also focus on storytelling as its subject matter must master this element first and foremost, and Setterfield accomplishes this quickly and thoroughly. From the very first few pages, one is swept into a lyrical story that reads like the best fairytales and folklore stories. The language is simple, but beautiful, and it’s easy to imagine sitting in the very same smoky inn, drinking mulled cider, while someone recounts this story aloud. The atmosphere is set incredibly, and while it only takes a few pages for the small girl to arrive, I already felt completely immersed in this world.
As the story progressed, I enjoyed the introduction of a larger cast of characters, all with their own distinctive stories and connections to the girl. In each story, we’re given just enough to begin forming assumptions and connections ourselves, but mysteries are ever present. Half of the fun of the book was attempting to weave all of these narratives together to form a complete circle.
Further, the setting was left a bit nebulous, but in this type of story, it seemed to work. It took a while for me to settle on what time period this was taking place in, which seems like it could be a criticism. But, like the best stories, a tale should be able to simply exist, without hard dates lodging it in time. Further, as the summary alludes to, there is a running question throughout the story of the fantastical. The little girl was dead. Everyone who saw her could confirm this. But then she wasn’t. Various characters come down on different sides when attempting to prescribe an explanation for this event. And readers, too, are left questioning what exactly is going on. Is there a level of fantasy being introduced here? Or is it the type of “fantasy” that we can all see in our everyday life, now, if we really look for it?
“Once Upon a River” is a beautiful story, mysterious and ever-flowing like the river that is at its heart. Fans of Setterfield’s previous books are sure to be pleased with this more recent entry. And new readers, like me, who enjoy stories about stories and lyrical writing will also come away satisfied. It’s just the kind of cozy book that is perfect to settle down with on these cold, winter nights.
Rating 8: A story that immediately draws you in with its beautiful writing and mysterious weave of intersecting tales.
Find “Once Upon a River” at your library using WorldCat!