Excerpt from Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Once Upon a River

by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield X
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2018, 480 pages

    Paperback:
    Jul 2019, 496 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
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Afterwards there was a pause. It wasn't done to jump in too quickly with a new story before the last one was properly digested.

Jonathan had been listening closely.

"I wish I could tell a story," he said.

He was smiling - Jonathan was a boy who was always smiling - but he sounded wistful. He was not stupid, but school had been baffling to him, the other children had laughed at his peculiar face and strange ways, and he had given it up after a few months. He had not mastered reading or writing. The winter regulars were used to the Ockwell lad, with all his oddness.

"Have a go," Albright suggested. "Tell one now."

Jonathan considered it. He opened his mouth and waited, agog, to hear what emerged from it. Nothing did. His face screwed tight with laughter and his shoulders squirmed in hilarity at himself.

"I can't!" he exclaimed when he recovered himself. "I can't do it!"

"Some other night, then. You have a bit of a practice and we'll listen to you when you're ready."

"You tell a story, Dad," Jonathan said. "Go on!"

It was Joe's first night back in the winter room after one of his sinking spells. He was pale and had been silent all evening. Nobody expected a story from him in his frail state, but at the prompting of his son he smiled mildly and looked up to a high corner of the room where the ceiling was darkened from years of woodsmoke and tobacco. This was the place, Jonathan supposed, where his father's stories came from. When Joe's eyes returned to the room, he was ready and opened his mouth to speak.

"Once upon a - "

The door opened.

It was late for a newcomer. Whoever it was did not rush to come in. The cold draft set the candles flickering and carried the tang of the winter river into the smoky room. The drinkers looked up.

Every eye saw, yet for a long moment none reacted. They were trying to make sense of what they were seeing.

The man - if man it was - was tall and strong, but his head was monstrous and they boggled at the sight of it. Was it a monster from a folktale? Were they sleeping and this a nightmare? The nose was askew and flattened, and beneath it was a gaping hollow dark with blood. As sights went, it was horrifying enough, but in its arms the awful creature carried a large puppet, with waxen face and limbs and slickly painted hair.

What roused them to action was the man himself. He first roared, a great bellow as misshapen as the mouth it emerged from, then he staggered and swayed. A pair of farmhands jumped from their seats just in time to grab him under the arms and arrest his fall so that he did not smash his head on the flagstones. At the same time Jonathan Ockwell leapt forward from the fireside, arms outstretched, and into them dropped the puppet with a solid weightiness that took his joints and muscles by surprise.

Returning to their senses, they hoisted the unconscious man onto a table. A second table was dragged so that the man's legs could be rested upon it. Then when he was laid down and straightened out, they all stood around and raised their candles and lamps over him. The man's eyes did not flicker.

"Is he dead?" Albright wondered.

There was a round of indistinct murmurs and much frowning.

"Slap his face," someone suggested. "See if that brings him round."

"A tot of liquor'll do it," another suggested.

Margot elbowed her way to the top of the table and studied the man. "Don't you go slapping him. Not with his face in that state. Nor pouring anything down his throat. Just you wait a minute."

Margot turned away to the seat by the hearth. On it was a cushion, and she picked it up and carried it back to the light. With the aid of the candles she spotted a pinprick of white on the cotton. Picking at it with her fingernail, she drew out a feather. The men's faces watched her, eyes wide with bewilderment.

"I don't think you'll wake a dead man by tickling him," said a gravel digger. "Nor a live one either, not in this state."

Excerpted from Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. Copyright © 2018 by Diane Setterfield. Excerpted by permission of Atria Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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