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Once Upon a River Hardcover – 17 Jan 2019
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"A story, no matter how cleverly it is structured, lives or dies on the vividness of its characters. Setterfield, a true storyteller, makes us care about all her players in this beguiling novel." (The Times)
"Exploring themes of storytelling, parenthood, science and society on the cusp of change, this is a richly evocative novel." (Observer)
"Diane Setterfield's debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, came out in 2006 to wide acclaim. She made her mark by delivering her own take on the classic romantic mystery novel, infused with the spirit of Jane Eyre, Rebecca and The Woman in White. Once Upon a River continues to demonstrate her mastery of the Gothic genre in a way that will appeal to modern readers...Setterfield knows how to make the words sing. It is worth taking a journey down the Thames with her." (Independent)
"Once Upon a River is magical, in every which way...it's the power of her storytelling that allows readers to suspend disbelief, and draws them through each tangled, dazzling chapter...This riverine novel has the mood and feel of a ghost story told late into the night, and will win over readers who enjoy a touch of age-old enchantment." (Financial Times)
"I was completely spellbound by this book. Numerous strands of the same story are skilfully woven into a magical web from which I, as a reader, had no desire to escape. Setterfield’s prose is beautiful, dark and eerily atmospheric, and her rich cast of characters convincingly illustrate the best and worst of humanity. Utterly brilliant!" (Ruth Hogan,bestselling author of The Keeper of Lost Things)
"Once Upon a River is one of the most pleasurable and satisfying new books I've read in a long time. Setterfield is a master storyteller, her language flowing with a dark magic very like the river at the heart of her tale: swift and entrancing, profound and beautiful. Give yourself a treat and read it!" (Madeline Miller,Orange Prize-winning author of The Song of Achilles and Circe)
"I so didn't want to leave the world of Once Upon a River but now I have and I'm bereft of the company of country folk and river spirits. This charming story about stories and the mystery of life & death captured my heart. A truly extraordinary book." (Dinah Jefferies)
"Her characters are so vivid, one feels as though one has met them, spent an evening in their company, telling stories around the hearth...Setterfield is a master storyteller herself, giving us all the depth and plot and richness of the great narrative novelists. This is dazzling, alive, all-consumer writing: one reads each page greedily, the beautiful sentences shining like jewels under the pulling current of the tale itself." (Daily Telegraph)
"A satisfying, thickly characterised tale that plunges you into an evocatively realised historical setting. You care for its characters." (Sunday Times)
"A finely drawn cast and bravura storytellling." (Mail on Sunday)
About the Author
Diane Setterfield’s bestselling novel, The Thirteenth Tale was published in 38 countries, sold more than three million copies, and was made into a television drama scripted by Christopher Hampton, starring Olivia Colmanand Vanessa Redgrave. Her second novel was Bellman & Black, and her new novel is Once Upon a River. Born in rural Berkshire, she now lives near Oxford, by the Thames.
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The story revolves around a girl who is brought to the Swan pub. She is proclaimed dead, but they she breathes again. The locals at the Swan are known for their storytelling and the girl who died and came back to life proves to be a story that grips everyone. Who is the girl? Where did she come from? The story unfolds and there are two possibilities as to the identity of the little girl. As the story unfolds we get to understand the motivations and lives of all the characters. The inclusion of folklore and myth surrounding the river is interweaved throughout the story and I found it completely absorbing. In fact, I didn't want the story to end. I loved every page, every description, and the ending was perfect too.
Once Upon a River is a story which stands on the cusp of myth and reason. Lily see visions of a dead child, the river folk tell stories of the Ferryman, a grey figure who saves from the river those whose time has not yet come, but who also ferries others "to the other side". The forces of reason opposing them are headed by Rita, a self taught medic and amateur scientist, and Daunt, a photographer.
The story which flows from these sources is one of blackmail and murder, of wicked step-siblings and benevolent parentlng, of spiritualism, fortune telling and illicit distilling, of late flowering love and of pig rearing. One the subject of porcine husbandry, the brief reference to a character called Lord Embury, is surely a nod to P G Wodehouse.
The book's strongest suit is the plotting, which is intricate and satisfying, even if at least one loose end, relating to one of the lost children, is tied up a little too neatly and easily. The complexity of the plot is as it should be in a book whose main theme is storytelling. Indeed there is a hint that the main narrative is actually being told as a story at the Swan, rather than being the subject of the book itself.
Once Upon a River has similarities with the author's first novel, the Thirteenth Tale. The historical setting is never explicitly stated, I would guess at late Victorian, early Edwardian. One also gets a feeling of an author trying a little too hard to reproduce the 19th Century novel. Early on the building blocks of the story clunk a little too obviously into place as a sequence of chapters all end on the same note. Finally, the characters tend a little towards the black and white, with motivations, particularly in the case of Helena, mother of Amelia, not ringing true.
In terms of other novels, the most obvious comparison, possibly encouraged by the choice of cover, is with Sarah Perry's Essex Serpent. It is a comparison which favours that book rather than this. While the two are set in a similar time, and both deal with the conflict between superstition and enlightenment, the latter feels like a very modern novel with nuanced characters, while this feels more like a pastiche.
Other comparators might be Philip Pulman's Belle Sauvage for the setting on the banks of the Thames, Graham Swift's Waterland for the cyclical feel of the seasons, or even Dorothy L Sayer's Nine Tailors for the diluvian finale.
While I have some criticisms of the book, overall it is an enjoyable, enriching read. It is part ghost story, part detective yarn, part thriller, and in the end a rather sweet love story. Above all, it is a nice book, with its heart very firmly in the right place. Ultimately, what Setterfield has delivered is a cracking melodrama which perhaps bears more comparison with Wilkie Collins than with Dickens.
As a whole, the book lacks for me the dynamic of the author's best writing, though it is by no means a bad book.