There are few authors who can take a common archetype like water and use it to deliver a fresh, wholly original tale that ensnares the reader from start to finish. Diane Setterfield does that in Once Upon a River. She uses the River to create the spine upon which she builds multiple stories that eventually meet to join the main narrative, just as tributaries meet the river.
Setterfield’s debut, The Thirteenth Tale, was as brilliant a novel as I’ve ever read and has become one that I re-read occasionally and recommend constantly. Her sophomore effort, Bellman & Black, didn’t appeal to me in the same way, but this one…oh, this one…is a story that I will remember for a long time. The characters are engaging and cleverly written, and the stories are joyful and heartbreaking…at the same time. I especially admire how sensitively Setterfield writes about differences. Jonathan, son of the innkeepers and born with Down Syndrome, is portrayed as a valuable and much-loved member of the family and contributor to the community. Armstrong, the bastard son of an Earl and a Black servant, is portrayed as a powerful, just, and loving man in the English countryside of long ago. And finally there is my favorite character Rita, the village “wise woman” who is really just a woman with common sense who loves to read and learn and who is trusted and loved by the villagers.
These are just three of the characters who people the pages of Once Upon a River, but there are more who will undoubtedly appeal to other readers. Part of Setterfield’s appeal for me is her attention to detail and character-building. Every single character could step out of this book and be a real person.
The multiple stories built throughout this book could stand alone, but here, Setterfield ties them all to the story of a small, mute girl rescued from the river. Who is she and where did she come from? That’s the question that drives all the action forward and leaves you guessing to the very end.
Looked at in a larger context, Once Upon a River is a story about stories and the importance (and danger) of telling tales. Setterfield masterfully shows how stories spread and grow into new things, just as small streams eventually become big rivers. Highly recommended.
Publication Date: December 4, 2018
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy