Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Publishing Date: December 4
Genre: historical fiction, gothic
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.
In a pub known for its storytellers, nestled along the Thames, an injured and soaked man stumbles across the threshold, carrying what looks to be a drowned girl. But as the evening bustles to care for the strangers, a nurse and the innkeeper’s son both realize the girl is neither dead nor alive. And yet, she awakens. Three different people claim her as their lost daughter or sister, but the girl refuses to speak. Is she really who the others claim, does she belong to someone else, and how is it she managed to be neither alive nor dead when she appeared at The Swan?
Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale is one of my all-time favorite novels. Though Bellman & Black hasn’t quite captured my attention, I knew from the jacket of this book that Setterfield was back in her game with Once Upon a River — atmospheric, absorbing, and full of wonder.
The little girl’s arrival sparks an interesting scientific and fantastical discussion on life, death, and the in-between. The inn’s patrons are natural storytellers, and as they watch and soak up every minute detail of her appearance and life following the inn, you begin to wonder yourself, as the reader, how she came to be and what exactly happened. Rita, the nurse (and probably my favorite character!), relies on science to find the answers to the little girl’s situation, but nothing scientific comes to light. This sparks a philosophical discussion about God, about myths and legends and fantasies, and how to grapple with the unknown.
Setterfield writes the narrative like the tributaries leading to the Thames — little, seemingly insignificant stories and characters grow and develop into a powerful flood of emotion, drama, and enlightenment by the story’s end. This is a novel that begs to be read slowly, savored, and not rushed or skimmed. Like the storytellers at The Swan, this too feels like a fairytale, to be read by a warm fire, in a cozy chair, with hot tea in hand.