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Once Upon a River


Once Upon a River

I have been hearing about Diane Setterfield and her explosive debut, THE THIRTEENTH TALE, for years, though I have never had the chance to read it. As a newcomer to her work, I had no idea what to expect with her latest, ONCE UPON A RIVER, but I knew that this was a book I wanted to take on immediately. In this digital age, it is so rare to feel like the first person who is in on something huge, and what could be bigger than a new novel from someone whose first book was called a “love letter to reading”?

Genre-bending, mysterious and lusciously written, ONCE UPON A RIVER is that rare sort of story that feels immediately familiar yet is full of secrets waiting to be revealed. Setterfield combines folklore, fairy tales and her own peculiar brand of mystery to create something entirely new --- a book that defies labels while still possessing all of the elements that immediately invite readers in and make them feel at home.

"Setterfield combines folklore, fairy tales and her own peculiar brand of mystery to create something entirely new --- a book that defies labels while still possessing all of the elements that immediately invite readers in and make them feel at home."

Set upon the banks of the Thames, ONCE UPON A RIVER begins at an inn called the Swan. Ancient, storied and beloved, the Swan is home to the matriarchal Ockwell family and a slew of regular drinkers and townsfolk. Although coins are traded for hearty glasses of ale, the true currency at the Swan is storytelling, and the best storyteller of all is Margot Ockwell’s husband, Joe Bliss. Along with their 12 little Margots and one little Jonathan, Margot and Joe live a relatively normal life, minding the drunks and carving out a life amongst the rising waters of the Thames --- until the night a stranger arrives, battered, bloodied and holding a strange wax-like puppet.

The arrival of this newcomer brings with it a seemingly unsolvable mystery when the puppet is revealed to be a deceased child, who miraculously returns to the world of the living with no medical intervention. But even the best storytellers at the Swan know that little girls do not die and come back to life, so the town is left to wonder who she is and to whom she belongs.

Sadly, children go missing all the time, both in reality and in fiction, so there is no shortage of families waiting to claim the miracle girl. Setterfield’s story focuses on three in particular: the Vaughans, a wealthy couple whose only daughter was kidnapped two years ago; Mr. Armstrong, a grandfather who learns about his possible granddaughter only after the death of his son’s wife; and Lily White, a grown woman who claims to see her sister in the girl, notwithstanding the obviously impossible age gap. Despite the startling number of families clamoring for the young girl, ONCE UPON A RIVER is surprisingly easy to follow, and Setterfield’s characters are among the most fleshed out I have ever read, both in their actions and in their interior motivations.

As Setterfield follows each family’s attempts to claim the girl, along with the effects on the townsfolk --- particularly the regulars of the Swan --- she invites readers into a sumptuous, gorgeously written world, where reality is stark and unavoidable, yet magic always seems to be just a page away. Just as the title reminds readers of childhood fairy tales, Setterfield’s lush but uncluttered world invites us to imagine --- just for a second --- that the veil between our world and others can be lifted, and what might happen if we were allowed to pass through.

Of course, ONCE UPON A RIVER is not all about magic. In describing each family’s attempt to claim the girl, Setterfield also explores some darker subjects, from brothels to violence and even kidnapping and murder. Much like the Thames with its pleasing current and unpredictable tides, Setterfield’s characters are often morally gray, though she provides us with more than a few to love and cheer for. In the town nurse, Rita Sunday, we have a perfect foil to the mystery and magic of the resurrected girl, as Rita believes in the scientific method above all and conducts several experiments in the hopes of finding the truth behind the child’s “miraculous” return to life. At the same time, we have characters like Mr. Armstrong, a man who so desperately wants to be the girl’s grandfather, yet must face the realities of his ne’er-do-well son and the implications of his disrespect for life --- human and animal.

In addition, Setterfield explores the themes of science and fantasy through her characters. The book takes place during the time of Darwin, and they often scoff at Darwin’s theories even while contemplating the miracle of a girl returning from death. In Rita, Setterfield deftly explores the science of the time, and what it might mean for a woman of faith to place her trust in something outside of religion. Photography is also a huge component of the book, and readers will delight in the thrill the characters feel in having their pictures taken —- after sitting perfectly still for 15 seconds, of course. These fact-based, historical themes provide a strong backbone to the more fantastic elements of the story, and serve to make the book more palatable to those who might not jump at the chance to read stories of ghosts and changelings and the like.

At once historical, fantastical and inherently magical, ONCE UPON A RIVER is an instant classic, an ode to magic, the power of storytelling and the strength of words. Do not miss this gorgeous, luscious tale of a miraculous girl and the town that learns to love her.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on December 7, 2018

Once Upon a River
by Diane Setterfield