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Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon a River

by Diane Setterfield

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Acquired Book By: I received a complimentary copy of “Once Upon A River” direct from the publisher Atria Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive compensation for my opinions or thoughts shared herein.

Interestingly, there is a segue of thought in the midst of the opening of the novel - of how the dead can speak tales long after they've gone to grave and how even in the benign farming of watercress, there can be sparks of the past. Where the dead linger, hungering almost to be heard and are never as silent as the whispered breezes cast through cemeteries as we would like to believe. Herein is a towne haunted by the past, the deaths of hundreds lost weighing down their souls and the somberness of that revelation cast against the reflections of where we find them presently is an interesting juxtaposition.

Finding out why the swan is on the cover was cleverly spun; it is where I met a clever character named Margot Bliss; though she was an Ockwell girl through and through. She kept the legacy of her pub in tact and as a testament of owning her truth and living it, she fell in love with a bloke others might have overlooked. Theirs was an interesting life lived out by story and daughters; til they were unexpectedly blessed by a son. Thirteen children in all and yet, the life they lived through those years could be counted in stories and visitors. I loved how the worth of her husband's life was counted differently than others might have perceived his gift for crafting stories; it was the first moment I came to find myself warming towards the character Margot Bliss. She didn't second guess herself and she owned her opinions and her heart; something a bit radical no matter which generation you live inside. Theirs was a humbling romance - of a man not built of strength of body but of mind, of where a marriage can thrive unconventionally and how the belief in a person can carry them through a lifetime.

I, love, too how she finds a way to give you the back-history on local lore and of her characters' lives as if they are mere brush strokes at the start of a painting but are not meant to be the sole focus of how her novel begins. They are imperative to understand a few things but there is a larger purpose to this kind of story being gently guided through its opening chapters - almost, as if the reader needs to ease into the narrative rather than alighting abruptly. It gave a short chill to the passages you are reading - as you are curious about the suspense of what is not yet known against what is now understood.

As we shift forward into contemplating the solstice and the turnings of the year, of how certain moments in time can be affected by an invisible veil between our reality and the places out of sight but feel as close as if we could walk inside a hidden world - I was wicked enthralled to turn the pages, to see what was awaiting me as there an anxiety of anticipation - of if this would have a darker turning of where the fantastical elements could become lightly dashed with Horror or if the folklore itself might have sharper edges laced into how the lore would affect the direction of the plot.

Rita Sunday the nurse of these parts has a way about herself - she might be unmarried due to those years she spent in the convent learning about medicine but what she gives to her patients is the calm confidence you'd hope to find in first responder. The fact the hardened men of the pub were less able to deal with the medical necessities of the hour spoke volumes; as they could come together when needed but if any of them were asked to do what Rita was observed doing, I am sure they would have needed stiff drinks to re-gain their ability to be conscious! For she was given the task of mending the ghoulishly fierce stranger whose injuries were quite horrific and yet whose tender hand at treating him was keenly seen in how she approached her duties. Nursing like doctoring is a calling and this Rita Sunday was in the right field for she had a hidden talent of understanding the body and the medical needs of her patient. Her keen observation skills also worked well but it was how she approached being a nurse which warms your heart.

You have to appreciate a well-timed moment of comedic relief - for me it was the scene were the candles of snuffed out due to the fainting man! Honestly, due to the dramatic nature of the passages thus far along, it was lovely to feel a chuckle of glee emitting out of a scene that was quite dire and medically intricate. I had to give credit to Setterfield for writing this the way she had - as she took a rather delicate scene and kept it sensible. She didn't overly describe the bits she could have to take this a bit deeper into the medicinal world but she gave enough realism to keep us in the scene; something I love to champion as it makes it easier as a reader with a sensitive heart!

Pulling back inside Rita's younger years, it was quite telling her inner strength by how she greeted the world - even her name is was given to help bolster her with an inner light of resolve. What was interesting of course, is how her beginning was not vindictive of her future - of how she had a chosen path for servitude and how naturally comfortable she had become in her role as a nurse. Being given her back-story and then, coming full circle back to the present, we see the route she had taken as a nurse but also as a woman. She made certain choices which re-directed her actions and the path her life had taken to bring her to Radcot. If she hadn't been here, a lot of lives would have been lost, more than the dead she had observed who died due to injuries and circumstances even medicine couldn't affect through intervention. It was through this sequence we get to stay a bit in her head as she contemplates the girl - seemingly pulled straight out of the river and one whose been cast aside to work on the living, as by all appearances she was already gone.

It is Rita Sunday who bemuses me, dear hearts - her cunning clarity of mind, her sharpness at observational details and the ways in which she knits together the clues others are either overlooking or casting aside. She is my favourite character of this tale because she has so much to give to the story. In many ways, it felt like it was centred on her - giving her the breadth to breathe the story round her own sensibilities and musings.

I was rejoicing with a joyfulness finding out who the girl was and to whom she belonged. I had picked up on her truer ancestry in the opening bridge of the novel; a little nudge of direction I felt I had misunderstood was actually the right line of course to understand. In that way, it felt like the novel had come full circle for me, as I was most curious if the girl herself was a vessel of hope and of truth. If she had to interact with all of these characters for their own lives to be righted against all wrongs and if the purpose of her presence was to affect change where a stagnant stasis had overtaken their paths instead?

By the time the story concludes, you have to wonder - which of it was real, which is imagined and if you re-read the last paragraph - what is our role as readers? How does the stories we read affect us and how to we affect the stories? There is a circle between writers and readers, as we complete the circle as we read the stories - that everyone knows, but how are the stories themselves altered by our presence within their folds? As each reader surely interprets them differently and has different takeaways, thereby where is the true beginning and end? Or is it all connected through the turning of pages threading into our imaginations?

A slight note of caution:

The ghoulish scene at the pub when we first met the stranger and the girl was held back a bit from being overtly difficult to read. However, when we reached the section about the farmer, I think I could have fared better with a bit of pull-back on what he was butchering and how he was proceeding with his chores at that particular moment. It was enough to know he was tending to what he needed to get done but I honestly didn't need the particulars - nor the vibrant details!

There were some rather harder hitting truths emerging out of the narrative as well - truths certain characters needed to let slip past their lips if they could hope to live a bit freer lateron in the story. Those passages were a bit more difficult to read as I was caught inside the river metaphor, the story of the lost girl and how everything settles itself on this unsuspecting inn and pub hugged close to the river itself.

Final impression about Setterfield:

Setterfield has an ease of unsettling you - of giving you a reason to pause for breath and to give her a chance to envelope you inside her emerging world. It is here where you can feel the moments between your breaths to where you await what she is going to tell you, for the story itself has a larger scope of insight to be told; you have to remain patient to hear its whispers and then, sort out your thoughts at its disclosures.

Setterfield is aces at metaphors - she has a way of etching out a sketch of presence about her character (herein I refer to Margot's husband) in such a way to re-illuminate the setting cast against their own personality traits. It is interesting to watch how she tucks in these phrases of insight, rooted in setting and how it reaches out to wrap round a character in such a way as to give you a fuller impression of who they would have been if they walked in the door of the room you were waiting for them to arrive. It is not just creative wordplay it is reaching past the subtle clues of character identity and seeking a deeper understanding of who they are and how they self-identify.

Even when I think there is enough lead-way to understand a particular direction within the story, I find Setterfield charms me with the illusion of what I felt I knew by what she is directing me towards instead. It was wonderful to find the darker elements in the beginning were more smoke and mirrors than reality; as it could have turnt a different way. I appreciated how the suspense stays anchoured into the background - never quite alleviating the edge you feel as your reading because it is what leaves the hunger for the next chapters whilst you're reading!

// This is a quotation of my full review originally shared via jorielovesastory.com
  joriestory | Jan 17, 2019 |
Read 50 pages and set aside. Have checked out from library so I have for 3 weeks. I may come back to it but the story's beginning did NOTHING for me.
  Alphawoman | Jan 14, 2019 |
Ah...what a way to start a year! This was such a good story. It doesn't quite fit into a traditional genre, but it almost seems like a beautifully woven fairy tale, set in the 1800's English countryside. It starts on a midwinter's night when a stranger, close to death enters an inn and collapses with a dead child in his arms. The inn is located by the Thames and it appears that they might have been victims of a boating accident. But, when the unexpected happens and the dead girl returns to life, then the story becomes the talk of all the neighboring towns. What unfolds is a well-crafted nuanced tale of loss and hope and the complex interactions between people. Part of the book is a mystery as we are taken along this fanciful tale trying to figure out who is the child. But mostly this is the type of 'once upon a time' story that you just want to slowly savor and enjoy. ( )
1 vote jmoncton | Jan 5, 2019 |
Three and a half stars.
I struggled mightily with where to rate this book. Over and over I tried to identify if my feelings were simply based on my long love of Setterfield’s previous book The Thirteenth Tale, was I simply not giving OUAR its own space. I then tried looking from the eyes “what if this were an unknown to me author?”. I still didn’t gush over it. More likely it’s failing is mine from a buildup knowing a new Setterfield book was coming and holding it up to an unattainable level.
I am an unapologetic rereader, a lover of magical realism, and a Setterfield fangirl, so I do highly recommend Once Upon a River. I will give this a reread later in the year and reassess my thoughts. As all her books, it is inventive, engaging, with richly developed characters. ( )
  CMDH5 | Jan 4, 2019 |
This is a fascinating magical realism story which feels like a classical adult fairytale. Joe and Margot are owners of The Swan Inn in Radcot by the River Thames. Joe is the greatest storyteller around and people come to the Inn to drink and hear his stories. One night an older man collapses into the Inn with the corpse of a dead girl that he has found in the river. The girl is put into a shed and when Rita Sunday, the nurse, checks on her Rita finds the girl alive. Helena and Anthony Vaughan hope it's their daughter who was kidnapped two years ago. Robert Armstrong, a black farmer, thinks the girl must be his son's daughter. Lily White who is 40 years old thinks the girl is her sister. The river plays a part as one of the main characters in the story. As the river winds and turns so does this tale. Diane Setterfield will capture your attention as you read this unique story. The pages will fly as you get closer to the satisfying worthwhile ending. I look forward to reading more from Diane Setterfield in the future. Thanks to NetGalley and Atria Books for a free copy of this book for an honest review. ( )
  EadieB | Jan 3, 2019 |
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Along the borders of this earth, lie others. There are places you can cross. This one such place.
To my sisters, Mandy and Paula. I wouldn't be me without you.
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