Let me tell you about a 4-year-old girl ghat was found in the river last night. Some man stumbled into The Swan with her, all bundled up but soaking wet. His face was all bashed in when he came, so he can’t explain how he got there, but he remembers finding her in the river. At first, when they arrived in the bar, soaking wet, the child was dead so they left her alone to tend to her savior since he, at least, seemed like he might recover. Some time later, the child was alive again. Alive, I say. Dead, once, but alive now, with not a single mark on her body to say where she came from. And then, three families who say that she belongs to them, start showing up. One by one, everyone wants her, none can prove with certainty, who she really is. Shall I start the story again? Okay let me start this way… Once upon a river….
18% completed: I’m entranced by the murkiness of this tale. The characters all seem very otherworldly and this might just the kind of story I need right now.
40% completed: I love the naming convention being used here. In several cases, the author presents the multiple identities that a single character could take – Ann, Amelia or Alice or Robert and Robin or Margot and little Margots – and I love that they could all be phases of the same person, the way a river can take on a different identity at various parts of its life cycle.
50% completed: I want to stop and start this book again so I can experience a second time this intricately woven story.
Final thoughts: I thoroughly enjoyed both the story and the storytelling in this kind of mythological tale about a girl who seems to return to life from death, kind of like a river goes through phases of existence many times. At its center is a discussion of belonging, and what claim we ultimately have on other people and indeed nature itself, since none who try to claim this girl can actually prove their connection. Ultimately, however, since the story isn’t so much about the girl herself, but of what she represents, I also loved how artfully the author presented the legend of the ferryman who plies the river between life and death and what these passageways mean for humanity, the powerful force of water, what it provides, what it takes, the detritus it collects and eventually deposits and what it leaves behind when it departs.
The story is set around the banks of the Thames in England sometime during the mid 19th century and also discusses some of the social issues of the time – the impact of slavery and domestic abuse, gender inequality and the role of religion in the lives of people.
I highly recommend this impressively constructed, entrancing tale for what it says about the fluidity of life and the transmutation that it hints at but more so about the power of a story to change both the person who tells and who hears it.
- Title: Once Upon A River
- Author: Diane Setterfield
- Pages: 480
- Publication Date: December 4, 2018
I am grateful to Netgalley and the publishers, Atria/Emily Bestler Books, for providing me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review.