Saturday, November 24, 2018

Once Upon a River

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
Atria/Emily Bestler Books: 12/04/18
eBook review copy; 480 pages
ISBN-13: 9780743298070 

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.)

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria/Emily Bestler Books.

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