Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
Atria/Emily Bestler Books: 12/04/18
eBook review copy; 480 pages
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield is a very highly
recommended, thoroughly enjoyable novel that combines, in part, elements
of historical fiction, mysteries, Gothic romances, and folk tales.
At the end of the 19th century, on a midwinter's night at the Swan,
an ancient inn, on the river Thames the regulars are gathered listening
to story-telling. They are all startled when a wounded man bursts
through the doors carrying a lifeless child in his arms. The stranger
collapses and the child is caught by the inn keepers son. Someone is
immediately sent to get Rita, the local nurse
and midwife, to attend to the man. In the meantime, it becomes clear
that the child is dead to those there, and she is moved to an unused
room. After Rita attends to the man's many wounds, she asks to look at
the child. Rita is also sure the child is dead when, unexpectedly, she
takes a breath and returns to life.
The miraculous return to life of the child defies explanation. The
girl appears to be four years old, but she is mute and unable to answer
any questions. The stranger is identified and recovering, but he knows
nothing as the child is not his. Soon the tale spreads and in the
morning three distinct people lay claim to the child. Helena and Anthony Vaughan, a young affluent married couple, are sure she is their
daughter, Amelia, who was kidnapped two years ago. Robert Armstrong, a successful farmer, believes the girl to be the result of a secret assignation child of his ne'er-do-well son,
Robin. Lily White the parson’s housekeeper, impossibly believes the
child may be her younger sister. Each family has a story, unrevealed
secrets, and may have a claim to the girl, but she can't belong to all
of them. And what about the murmurings that she may have a tie to the mythical ferryman, Quietly.
Once Upon a River is an excellent story and features
exceptional storytelling and character development. The narrative is
atmospheric, suspenseful, and complex. The plot features elements of
myth, folklore, science, magic, secrets and rumors. This is a wonderfully-written
historical novel with a Gothic feeling but it also has several
mysteries that need to be resolved and swirling around the plot are
mythical details. Each word is meant to be savored. I was immersed in
the story right at the beginning and held enchanted and full of
anticipation and anxiety right to the absolutely perfect conclusion.
The character development is phenomenal. Each character is truly a
unique individual and Setterfield does an outstanding job developing and
expounding on their individual traits. Their stories are intertwined
and separate as the plot evolves and the story develops. We learn more
about each family and each person just when we need to do so. The novel
is largely character driven, so the rich diverse characters make this
novel a pleasure to read.
Once Upon a Riverwill likely be in my top ten books of the
year and it is certainly worthy of my highest recommendation. (I should
admit that I generally don't enjoy historical fiction, but
this is a perfect reason why exceptions sometimes need to be made when
choosing a novel.)
My review copy was courtesy of Atria/Emily Bestler Books.