There are stories that completely submerge you in its currents, carrying you to distant lands in a different time, filling your head with ideas you haven’t paused to ponder. And finally, washes you ashore letting you take that invigorating breath of air. I was spellbound. I’m at a loss of words. What a master storyteller is Diane Setterfield!
Once Upon a River is a genre-crosser. It’s historical fiction laced on the edges with an element of the magical, the fantastical, the unexplainable miracles that sometimes punctuate reality. It’s a spell-binding mystery, an ode to storytelling, filled with fable-esque interludes, wonder and fascination for science and how the human body works. And though the net seems wide and little too grand, Setterfield masterfully weaves the story together, while at the backdrop, the beating pulse of the novel remains the river.
A girl presumed dead is found by a man in a boating accident. Terribly injured himself, he makes his way to the Swan, a riverside inn, for help. The girl, after a while miraculously comes back to life becoming the talk of the little riverside town. Three different characters who have lost their child lay claim to this girl. Tracing back her identity and her mysterious link to the river becomes the rest of the story.
Just like the multiple tributaries that join into a river, there are multiple side stories that ultimately join in with the main plot of the book. Setterfield presents an entire cast of characters in this little town. Each completely realized in their own right. While initially, it could be a tad confusing as to why new characters are being introduced, or why a particular backstory is being presented, it beautifully comes together as the novel progresses. I found the story compulsively readable. I was propelled to keep turning the page. Setterfield’s writing is exquisite, each word just flowing into the next, pulling you into the tide of the story.
Though I personally loved it, I can also see how it might not work for everyone. The narrative structure, the recurring thread of a missing child, the large cast of characters, etc. might irk readers. But I personally thought it completely elevated the experience creating a rich tapestry of intrigue & incredible story-telling. It reminded me of Kate Morton’s The Clockmaker’s Daughter which I read earlier this year. Though completely different in plot, they are comparable in the respect that both are historical fiction novels, with a wide cast of characters and a shifting narrative in time.
Huge thank you to the lovely publishers for graciously sending me an early copy.(Doubleday UK, Transworld Publishers)
Publication Date: 19 January 2019