Once Upon a Riverby Published 04 Dec 2018
|Once Upon a River.pdf|
|Publisher||Atria/Emily Bestler Books|
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?
Replete 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.
"Once Upon a River" Reviews
Along the borders of this world lie others.
There are places you can cross.
This is one such place.
This is a beautiful story. It's a genre-crosser: something of a historical mystery told like a fairy tale with magical realism. Everything straddles the line between reality and the supernatural, and sometimes it steps over into the fantastical, which might be surprising for fans of Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale.
I think it works really well, though. I should point out that the story is very slow burn and that's how the whole book unfolds - there's no "aha!" moment when the pace suddenly starts racing. It's a gentle, often sad, story of the magic in the mundane, and the normal in the seemingly miraculous.
Setterfield sets the tale along the banks of the River Thames in 1887. True to our own history, this time is rife with superstition and folklore, tales of ghosts and fortune-telling. This allows for some uncertainty over what is supernatural and what exists in the minds of superstitious people. Does Bess really have the ability to look into someone's soul and see their true self, or is she just a woman adept at reading people?
I think that's what makes this story so thrilling. The line between our reality and the possibility of the supernatural is a fine one. I love fairy tales that open your eyes to the many "magical" things in our own world.
The story follows many characters and is largely centred around an inn called The Swan. One night, an injured man stumbles into the inn carrying a dead child. A child who sometime later is alive. Not only is this a mystery in itself, but so is the child's identity. Where did she come from? Could she be the missing daughter of the Vaughans who disappeared two years earlier? Could she be the grandchild of Mr Armstrong? The child in question does not speak a word.
The rhythm of the train on the tracks suggested words to his overtired brain and he heard them as clearly as if an unseen person had pronounced them: Something is going to happen.
As with The Thirteenth Tale, Setterfield really emphasizes the power of stories to shape people. The lore believed by these characters plays into their everyday lives, defining them. They are all so well-drawn, living seemingly simple working class lives, but hiding dark secrets and traumas that will, of course, come back to haunt them. Perhaps literally.
This is a gorgeous fairy tale, woven with everything that gives fairy tales their timeless quality. It is a quieter, more grounded in reality version of Katherine Arden or Naomi Novik. The feel reminds me somewhat of 2012's The Snow Child, but with a very different setting and a bigger cast of characters.
Fans of quiet fairy tales about people and (maybe) magic should love this. Warnings for [spoilers removed]
There must be more to stories than you think.
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"It was solstice night, the longest night of the year... And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds... Unexpected things can happen. Did the solstice have anything to do with the strange events at the swan? You will have to judge for yourself."
As a newcomer to Diane Setterfield's work and hearing what a legend she is in the book community, I was excited and a little bit anxious to see how I would receive her brand of storytelling. I was blessed beyond all measure to read this alongside dear friend Leigh Kramer, and knew that no matter what the outcome we would have delightful discussions along the way. From the very first page I knew this story would be something special; the lush prose and dreamlike atmosphere were enticing, and Setterfield's gift in speaking directly to the reader drew me in and gripped me like a vice until I turned the final page.
"When the cold river doesn't feel cold, that's when you know you're in trouble."
I've seen some varied opinions of this book, and what I've noticed so far is how, whether feelings of delight or boredom, readers have strong opinions of this story. As someone who was able to go into this knowing that it would be a slow burn from start to finish, I think it gave me the perspective I needed to pick it up at just the right time so that I could let the story guide me gently along, rather than feeling like I had to cram it in and blow through it in a hurried frenzy. For those looking for a fast paced, plot driven mystery, you won't find it here, but for those searching out a unique story tinged with just the right amount of magic to keep you wondering if this story is indeed supernatural, let me introduce you to Once Upon A River.
"All she was left with when she rose stiffly and took her coat off to go to bed was a deep and impenetrable mystery.
OUAR is the type of story that I could spend pages writing about the atmosphere and "feels", but I also want to take a moment to discuss the characters. There is quite a large cast in this book, and it does take a good chunk before everyone becomes familiar and things begin to fall into place and connect. I found myself texting Leigh frequently asking "wait, now who is this again? And who do they belong to in the story?" because she is gifted in keeping up with all of the confusing things in life. I highly recommend finding a Leigh, but you can't have mine. It was interesting to see which characters we clicked with instantly, which had to grow on us, which ones we hated throughout, and how some of our views changed as the story progressed.
"And now, dear reader, the story is over. It is time for you to cross the bridge once more and return to the world you came from. This river, which is and is not the Thames, must continue flowing without you. You have haunted here long enough, and besides, you surely have rivers of your own to attend to?"
This book was so wonderful, and I think the author did a fantastic job of portraying a vivid, diverse cast of a small town community in the late 1800's, and I believe my only minor issue was with the way the story ended for one character, Rita. While I can't go into detail here due to spoilers, I was a little disappointed that her personality and morals took a 180 in the very final passages, as she was my absolute favorite character in the book for those reasons. Overall though, there's not much to complain about here. OUAR was the kind of book that makes you believe in rich, traditional storytelling once again, and includes the type of writing that feels somehow elevated from most current publications. Highly recommended for anyone looking for a novel that will sweep you away into a whirl of magic you had forgotten existed since you were a child.
*Thank you Atria Books for providing my review copy.
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield is a 2019 Atria/Emily Bestler Books publication.
A deeply mysterious, hypnotic and fantastical Gothic yarn!
Nearly a century ago, on Winter Solstice, folks assembled together at ‘The Swan at Radcot’, a local inn, where they plan to spend the evening swapping stories. But, suddenly, a stranger comes staggering in, half drowned, carrying a young girl, who appears deceased. However, when the local nurse is called to the scene, she discovers the child is breathing- appearing to have miraculously returned from the dead!!
The man who rescued the child has no idea who she is. While the girl remains mute, she is claimed by three different people or families. One woman dubiously claims the girl is her sister, while another couple, devastated by the kidnapping of their only daughter, is positive the child is theirs, and yet another couple is convinced the girl is their grandchild, the daughter of their ne’er do well son.
While the base foundation is built up around the mystery of the Lazarus child, there are several separate threads embedded within the main story.
Each character carries a burden, a secret, or extreme guilt, but they also carry hope and the wish to keep the child away from any harm, refusing to become combatant with the others who wish to claim her.
The author weaves magical realism into the mysterious tale seamlessly, creating an exquisite Gothic atmosphere so thick you can slice it. This book is perfectly suited to my taste in Gothic fiction. I loved the mystery, the allegory, and the combinations of various historical and Gothic styles the author employs, which pays homage to a few literary greats.
In many ways, this novel is an ode to storytelling, because the art of verbal storytelling, is at the core upon which the book is based. The residents who gather at ‘The Swan’ and their stories, are referenced often.
Even the title, borrows from the age old ‘Once Upon a Time’ which precedes a great many stories which have been passed down for centuries. These tales, legends and myths, folklore and fairytales, can challenge the imagination, and nurture creativity, as well as pass along a few lessons, encouraging one to exercise a little critical thinking, as well.
This absorbing tale slowly lures the reader into its web, moving at a languid pace, bringing various threads together a little at a time, while providing what might be best described as vignettes within the base of the story, which keeps the reader invested, while adding depth, character, and emotions into the mix, leaving one transfixed by the all the implications and developments, the imagery, whimsy and reflection.
This story does have a large cast of characters, does meander a bit, and is very dense, which did require a sharper focus on my part. Ironically, though, the large cast, and the intricacy of the plot, which I normally struggle with, was an asset and not a hindrance, in this case.
However, one may need to exercise a little patience, in the beginning, and I might also suggest unplugging for a while, to fully absorb the rich textures and layers of the story. Savor this one slowly when you can give it your undivided attention.
You’ll soon find yourself lost in another time and place, so far removed from the ordinary you’ll be reluctant to leave the cocoon the story has wrapped you up in. That is what a good story should do-
If you follow my reviews, then you know I love Gothic tales- so of course, I was easily drawn into this unique story, and relished every second of it! For those who aren’t into Gothic stories as much as I am, this one might challenge you a bit. But, if you stick with it, you may discover, that while it might be an acquired a taste, once you’ve been bitten by the bug you'll be a fan for life.
It’s so beautiful
It was wonderful and magical and I loved it!! That’s all that matters!
I was attracted to something that I read about this book which describes an inn where people came to tell their stories. The thought of that reminded me of Canterbury Tales, read many, many years ago in college - about travelers telling their stories. There are many stories here to be told and I was drawn in from the beginning by the descriptive writing of the River Thames, the characters. I was on the river, at the inn and in the lives of this cast of characters. I always hesitate to use the word atmospheric because it’s used so often, but in this case it’s the best word I can come up with to describe the feel of this novel.
Something happens at the inn known for story telling, the Swann at Radcot when an injured man and a little girl appearing to be dead show up. Shortly after, Rita, the nurse who could easily be a doctor, is examining the little girl and then she’s not really dead anymore. This is not just the story of the girl, who mesmerizes anyone who sees her. While she is an attraction to many people, she also represents hope to others who have lost a little girl, wanting her to be theirs. Is she the Vaughn’s missing daughter Amelia or is she the Armstrong’s granddaughter Alice or is she Lily White’s little sister Ann who has been missing or will she belong to Rita, who it seems has brought her back to life ? Does she belong to anyone? There is mystery and magical realism and the fairy tale like quality of the girl was reminiscent for me of The Snow Child. I needed to be patient with this one because I felt it was slow at times and maybe a little long. Having said that, the writing is lovely and there are a number of characters to connect with. I loved the ending.
This ARC was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.