Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon a River Book Cover Once Upon a River
Diane Setterfield
Historical Fiction, Gothic, YA
Atria/Emily Bestler Books
December 8, 2018
Kindle, Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobooks
480

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.

And the river flows…

Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield, is a multi-character, multi-thread tale set in the early 1800’s and overflowing with intrigue and deception.

A battered and bloodied stranger arrives at the Swan, the local Inn on the river Thames that is known for its evening storytelling, with the limp body of  a drowned young girl who closely resembles two missing girls, one recently and one from two years past.  The child’s inexplicable revival ignites the tongues of the storytellers and the interest of number of people who believe she might be one of the lost girls.

Diane’s classical English style of writing is the perfect voice for this Gothic, historical novel and compliments the setting and characters wonderfully.  The personification of the river reflects the story’s development and the layers of intrigue that chronicles the torrent of mystery surrounding the child and those who seek her identity for both altruistic and nefarious gain. The inclusion of the storytellers and the legend of the ferryman reveals the impact that word of mouth and rumors had on the people and events of that time.  The repeated inclusion of the river and storytellers enhances the growing and morphing saga and appropriately illustrates the way momentous events seem to take on a life of their own.

I love classical English literature! Diane has created an amazingly authentic tale in that style and substance.  Her story is so compelling that you can’t help but spend non-reading moments mulling over each new development in an attempt to “solve” the mystery only to have new revelations change the course of the story.  It all culminates in a delightfully unexpected ending that leaves you both surprised yet feeling as if justice has been served. Once Upon a River is definitely a story worth reading!

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