Once Upon a River
A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child.
Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.
Is it a miracle?
Is it magic?
Or can it be explained by science?
An exquisitely crafted multi-layered mystery brimming with folklore, suspense and romance, as well as with the urgent scientific curiosity of the Darwinian age, Once Upon a River is as richly atmospheric as Setterfield’s bestseller The Thirteenth Tale.
In the small village of Radcott, inns dot the banks of the river. There are inns for jokes and merriment, where men and women go for laughter and fun; inns for music, for fighting, for quiet contemplation. Inside all, good company and deep drinks can soothe sorrow and ease weary bones. But only at The Swan, an ancient family-run inn, can there be found the gift of storytelling. There, tales of faries, folklore, myths and magic are exchanged, captivating listeners in their seats. Small details are often changed – a place, a person, a piece of the puzzle altered to keep ears open but the true facts are never touched. Stories fill every corner of The Swan, drawing back locals time and again and enchanting newcomers. At the helm is Margot and her ailing husband Joe, who serve their guests with warmth on a chilly day and the best of stories to send them off on their travels.
One wet night a man struggles through the door, holding the body of a drowned girl. All eyes turn to him and all of a sudden the tales they tell so often are forgotten as one unfurles around them. Injured and on the cusp of death, the locals help the poor man and patch him back up. It will take time for him to heal fully but he will survive. The same cannot be said for the girl he arrived with. Her lifeless body is moved respectfully, all attention then taken up with the man’s care. When nurse, Miss Sunday, goes to examine the child’s body, she meets a shocking discovery. The girl is alive.
Concern descends on the inn. The locals try to guess at what tragedy must have befallen the two newcomers but arrive back where they started none the wiser. The biggest puzzle – one they can’t puzzle out – is the mystery surrounding the girl. Dead one moment, alive the next. An impossibility. Something belonging to fiction, a twist taken from one of their very own tales. But it is more than that. And the mystery will only thicken and grow as time goes on. On everyone’s lips, are the words, “Something is coming!”
Once Upon a River has a big cast of characters, all of who are distinct and memorable for different reasons. The author portrays them exquisitely, drawing the reader into their innermost thoughts and feelings. Love, loss, hope, fear, grief all tussle inside the characters’ lives and the emotion jumps from the page and into the palm of the reader.
I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that this is the first book I’ve read by Diane Setterfield. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about her books, in particular The Thirteenth Tale so before I began Once Upon a River, I had big expectations, and they were all surpassed. The author’s writing is imbued with magic – the magic to draw the reader in and the power to keep them firmly in her grasp till the end. I loved everything about this book. Really looking forward to diving into her other books!
Exquisite. Powerful. Magical.
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Huge thanks to Doubleday and Netgalley for my review copy!