by Diane Setterfield
Published by Emily Bestler Books/Atria Books • December 4, 2018
480 Pages • ISBN 978-0743298070 • Hardcover
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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.
Once Upon a River is a return to form for Diane Setterfield. Bellman & Black, her followup to the astounding The Thirteenth Tale, fell far short for me; one of the rare occasions that I simply did not finish a book. I believe Setterfield was hard pressed to come up with something as incredible as The Thirteenth Tale and could not be pressured into a new story, and it shows in Bellman & Black. However Once Upon a River, while an entirely different creature from The Thirteenth Tale, has the same unputdownable pull. Read over the course of 3 sittings (the last keeping me up until the wee hours of the morning, reading the entire second half of the book), I was enthralled by the threads of story that she weaves throughout the book and had to find out how everything would come together in the end.
A tale told just as much through stories as the action itself, the reader follows the plight of three families as they all lay claim in one form or another to a mysterious child who was found dead but miraculously comes back to life. No once knows for sure who she is, but the child becomes the crux of the story and through her, secrets are brought to light that threaten to pull some families apart, while also bringing some families back together. Can the folklore of the region explain her away, or can the budding science of modern medicine give a reason to her miraculous resurrection? Who will finally lay claim to the child? These are questions only Setterfield can answer, and she answers them beautifully.
I received an eARC of this title from NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.