Summary and book reviews of Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

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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  • Published:
    Dec 2018, 480 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
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About this Book

Book Summary

A richly imagined, powerful new novel about how we explain the world to ourselves, ourselves to others, and the meaning of our lives in a universe that remains impenetrably mysterious.

On a dark midwinter's night in an ancient inn on the river Thames, an extraordinary event takes place. The regulars are telling stories to while away the dark hours, when the door bursts open on a grievously wounded stranger. In his arms is the lifeless body of a small child. Hours later, the girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation? These questions have many answers, some of them quite dark indeed.

Those who dwell on the river bank apply all their ingenuity to solving the puzzle of the girl who died and lived again, yet as the days pass the mystery only deepens. The child herself is mute and unable to answer the essential questions: Who is she? Where did she come from? And to whom does she belong? But answers proliferate nonetheless.

Three families are keen to claim her. A wealthy young mother knows the girl is her kidnapped daughter, missing for two years. A farming family reeling from the discovery of their son's secret liaison, stand ready to welcome their granddaughter. The parson's housekeeper, humble and isolated, sees in the child the image of her younger sister. But the return of a lost child is not without complications and no matter how heartbreaking the past losses, no matter how precious the child herself, this girl cannot be everyone's. Each family has mysteries of its own, and many secrets must be revealed before the girl's identity can be known.

Once Upon a River is a glorious tapestry of a book that combines folklore and science, magic and myth. Suspenseful, romantic, and richly atmospheric, the beginning of this novel will sweep you away on a powerful current of storytelling, transporting you through worlds both real and imagined, to the triumphant conclusion whose depths will continue to give up their treasures long after the last page is turned.

The Story Begins ...

There was once an inn that sat peacefully on the bank of the Thames at Radcot, a day's walk from the source. There were a great many inns along the upper reaches of the Thames at the time of this story and you could get drunk in all of them, but beyond the usual ale and cider each one had some particular pleasure to offer. The Red Lion at Kelmscott was musical: bargemen played their fiddles in the evening and cheesemakers sang plaintively of lost love. Inglesham had the Green Dragon, a tobacco-scented haven of contemplation. If you were a gambling man, the Stag at Eaton Hastings was the place for you, and if you preferred brawling, there was nowhere better than the Plough just outside Buscot. The Swan at Radcot had its own specialty. It was where you went for storytelling.

The Swan was a very ancient inn, perhaps the most ancient of them all. It had been constructed in three parts: one was old, one was very old, and one was older still. These different elements ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The Swan Inn, Buscot Lodge, and the towns and villages along the river Thames create a very specific atmosphere for the story that unfolds. What role does the Swan itself play? Could this story have taken place anywhere else?
  2. To judge by such details as photography and transport as described in the novel, the events appear to be set in the 1870s or thereabouts. Could the novel have been set at another time in history? What would have had to be different if the author had chosen another period?
  3. What is the significance of the river?
  4. By the time Vaughan had written a concise two-page account of Amelia's kidnapping to his father in New Zealand, "the horror of it was quite excised." What effect does the act of storytelling have on Vaughan?...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Setterfield possesses a rare gift. She is able to endow even the most bit-part actors with rounded, intriguing backstories that never overstay their welcome and never read dry. Once Upon a River is a spellbinding feat in storytelling.   (Reviewed by Dean Muscat).

Full Review (670 words).

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Media Reviews

Booklist
Setterfield fills this richly layered plot with a fascinating cast of memorable characters who weave in and out of each other's lives.

Library Journal
Setterfield's latest novel is set near the Thames river and surrounding villages. The heart of the story are the relationships that twist and turn, as if they also follow the river. Recommended to readers who enjoy popular or historical fiction with gothic twists as well as fans of the author's other novels, especially The Thirteenth Tale.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. By combining flavors of some of Britain's very best writers - a hint of Austen's domestic stories, a tinge of Tolkien's more folkloric elements, and a dash of mystery from Christie - Setterfield has created a tale not to be missed.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. Celebrates the timeless secrets of life, death and imagination - and the enduring power of words. Fans, rejoice!

Author Blurb Madeline Miller, internationally bestselling author of Circe and The Song of Achilles
One of the most pleasurable and satisfying new books I've read in a long time. Setterfield is a master storyteller...swift and entrancing, profound and beautiful."

Author Blurb M.L. Stedman, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Light Between Oceans
A beguiling tale, full of twists and turns like the river at its heart, and just as rich and intriguing.

Author Blurb Jim Crace, National Book Critics Circle winner and author of Being Dead and Harvest
This is magical, bewitching storytelling...High prose expressed with rare clarity, story for the unashamed sake of story, a kind of moral dreaminess…well, the list continues to grow.

Reader Reviews

Elizabeth of Silver's Reviews

Once Upon A River
Storytelling at the Swan is the favorite past time of the crowd and the reason so many men stop by for their drinks. One night the storytelling became real when a man who had been hurt and a small girl who appeared as if she had drowned fell ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Ferrymen of Souls

Alexander Litovchenko's depiction of Charon ferrying souls across the StyxQuietly the ferryman is a recurring character in Once Upon a River, a spectral presence that exists somewhere in between truth and fantasy. Radcot's denizens, many of whom believe they have spotted Quietly on the Thames, have constructed dozens of versions of his story, but in essence he is described as "a man who comes and goes without warning, sometimes bringing life, sometimes death." While Setterfield's apparition appears to be plucked from her own imagination, Quietly does draw from legends and folktales of soul-carrying ferrymen throughout the ages.

In Egyptian lore, the figure of Mahaf is sometimes depicted as the celestial ferryman who carries the dead to the underworld. This mythical character is heavily featured in the Pyramid ...

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