What a special literary treat it is when you find a book, which upon finishing, you need to think about for hours, and days, and weeks for simply starting a new one is out of the question. Such a book is Diane Setterfield’s new novel Once Upon a River. Setterfield ‘s new book takes place in the 19th century around the river Thames and the river is as much a character as the people we get to meet throughout the story.
The tale begins in the middle of winter in an inn called The Swan situated close to the river. The regulars there are known for their habit of storytelling and on this fateful night their usual stories are interrupted by a bloodied stranger who carries a dead child with him. The following events come to create a new story material that will on its own become a mythical tale at the inn for the future generarions. The child once dead comes to life and the main narrative action revolves around the claim of three families on this mysterious child. The story itself reads like a slice of life tale but one that is seeped in mythology and folklore.
At its core Once Upon a River is a story of loss and grief and how people deal with this part of life. However, it is so much more than this as well. Setterfield‘s storytelling drags the reader into a world of magic and folklore where even the most mundane actions are seeped with meaning and omens. The way the narration works is so natural and so at ease that the reader easily gets involved in this world that revolves around the river and its powers that putting the book down is nigh impossible.
It is not just the narration that feels so real and fully formed but also the characters that Setterfield so masterfully creates. Everyone has a part to play and they all read like real human beings with great stories to tell, which does not happen often in a book. The reader gets to meet all three families and gradually gets to know them so well that parting with them in the end is a hard task. The first claim upon the girl comes from a young and wealthy family who have lost their own daughter two years ago and believe that the river has returned their long lost child. The second claim comes from The Armstrongs, a farming family, whose son has had a shameful liaison that has resulted in a baby girl who resembles the stranger from the river. Last but no least we have Lily who believes that the little girl is her sister who has returned to haunt her for her sins in the past. This review will not spoil the solution to the dispute but it is safe to say that the child brings with her as many questions as answers. The fateful night at The Swan leads to many twists and turns and the story at times is as calm as the river and at other times as turbulent creating a whirlwind of emotions.
As a whole it is safe to say that Diane Setterfield’ new book Once Upon a River has the makings of a modern classic. The characters are so well created that they are able to pull at the reader’s heartstrings at all times and their stories and thoughts are so human that the reader forgets that this is a work of fiction. The narration shows the great talent and skill of Setterfield and the storytelling within storytelling is spellbinding. Setterfield’s work is a deeply satisfying read and it is a must for every reader who enjoys folklore and legends, captivating characters and an enchanting novel of love and grief, stories and myths.
Once Upon a River is available now, published by Doubleday Books.