I was rather intrigued by the synopsis of Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. I had also been seeing a lot of tidbits here and there about how good it was. So I was more than happy to accept a copy at no charge from Atria Books for my honest review.
About Once Upon a River:
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.
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About the Author:
Diane Setterfield is a former academic, specializing in twentieth-century French literature. She lives in Yorkshire, England.
I don’t even know where to begin with this book. I sadly could not just sit and read it as I wanted to. I will write that when I did pick it up to read I felt the pull of the story and the writing immediately. It only took a sentence or two of Ms. Setterfield’s magical prose to take me completely out of the real world and into the lives of the people living upon the river.
The book is ostensibly about a child who is brought to an inn on the Thames on night by a badly injured man. At first it is thought that the young girl is dead but miraculously she seems to come back to life. Then comes the challenge of finding her people.
The Inn where she is brought is in an area and owned by a man known for his ability to tell a good story. For what else is there for the lives of the lower classes in the late nineteenth century but the retelling of a story. Whether that tale be one from the ages or one that just walked in the door it is in its telling that the information is shared.
While this book is about this young girl it is also about the river and the many people who live, work and depend upon it. Then there are the stories. Each person has their own story and it is constantly changing. So ultimately this is a book about stories so it is so vital that it has a writer of skill to put pen to page.
And it does.
The prose is just magical. Ms. Setterfield spins a web with her words and the reader finds that escape is difficult and perhaps not desired. I was really not happy when I had to put the book down to do something else. I was equally upset when the book ended for I wanted to stay with these quirky people in their weird world.
There are a lot of characters and therefore there are a lot of stories to track. But they are so well defined and so very unique to themselves that I had no trouble keeping track of who was who and what was what. From the strong and fearless Margot to the storyteller extraordinaire Joe – even if his light is a bit diminished when we first meet him. Then there is the quiet, yet oh, so knowledgeable nurse Rita who cares for all and any but not for herself. There are many, many more each with a life full of the happys and sads that all of us have. In this town of stories everyone knows them all – or do they? Are there still some tales to be told?
I finished the book and I wanted to turn around and read it again. I know that if I could I would find things I missed the first time around. I know when I love a book like this I read at an even more rapid rate than my normal speedy turn of the pages. And I did love this book. It is going to stay on my shelf for a re-read at some point in time. It may very well end up my favorite book of the year.
Take a writer of marvelous, magical prose who creates a town full of unique and quirky folk who are just trying to live their lives and add in a collection of stories both happy and sad with some questionable folk and bad behavior tossed in plus a river on its own path and you have a book that will enthrall you, excite you and entertain you.