Must-reads: Once Upon A River

Once upon a time

On midwinter’s solstice, on the banks of Thames, Swan Inn is full of villagers who try to stay warm and dry by the fire. When the door suddenly pens, an injured man comes in and collapses. In his arms lies a child around four years of age, that seems already drowned.

But, although everyone seems sure that the little girl is dead, her pulse comes back, and her eyes flutter open.

How can a child come back from the dead?

Soon enough, different people will arrive and claim the little girl for their own. Is she the kidnapped daughter of the Vaughans? Is she the ghost of Ann, that has come back from the dead to haunt her sister? Or is it Alice, the granddaughter of the Armstrong family?

Three different families of the little community will claim the child as their kin. But the little one can’t talk, so nobody knows for certain. How can she resemble many children at once? Why doesn’t she seem to recognise anyone? And if she is the kin of one family, what has happened to the other children?

Once Upon a River is a masterpiece of storytelling. Stories are woven together masterfully. As they get intertwined, the plot becomes more and more interesting. The while thing starts as a fairy tale. And, indeed, it resembles one in many ways.

“There must be more to stories than you think.”

There is a multitude of characters in this book, all carefully constructed, with strange past and even more peculiar present lives. At points, this character construction resembles works of King: a small community, lots of different background stories, that all have a point of connection to one another. It is, in fact, a very difficult thing to do; but Setterfield manages it nonetheless.

But what is most admirable in this story, is the way science facts and magic are woven together. Sometimes, the author makes you believe everything is science based – from the girl not having a pulse to a kidnapping. Other times, the story leads you to believe there is something magical in the making – could some local legends have a hint of truth in them?

The extraordinary thing, here, is that you don’t really know what to believe. The multitude of questions create a mystery you simply cannot unravel, and you can’t help but feel the urge to read the book in one sitting.

Once Upon a River is a book definitely worth your reading time. In order to be fair, I have to admit that the start is somewhat slow, and the story highly detailed. However, this is one of those occasions in which details do make an actual difference. Pay attention, readers: Diane Setterfield has created a story you won’t want to miss out on.