Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

I thank the publisher for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Penguin Random House

Published – 17th January

Price - £12.99 Hardcover

On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames, the regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open and in steps an injured stranger, in his arms is the drowned corpse of little child. Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.

Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can it be explained by science?

Stories can be infinite, that collection of characters we meet at the start of a book all have had their own lives and mysteries.  Some of which are key to the story to come and some are never discovered by anyone but inside the author’s head. In this fascinating mystery Diane Setterfield gives us a tale where one mysterious event unveils and then untangles a series of mysteries, puzzles and relationships that a tranquil Victorian town on the edge of the river Thames is the last place you would usually expect such revelations.

In the wider world of Victorian Britain people are looking at the ideas of Darwin but in the Swan Inn people tend to trade stories of the local people and events.  The regulars however find themselves in one of their own when a man covered in blood arrives holding what is first thought to be a doll but then instead to be the body of a young girl. Mysteriously the local healer finds her once again breathing hours later without any rational explanation. Immediately this raises a question how and who is this young lady and who is her mysterious companion? As news travels of this events three separate groups think they know the identity of the child and she could be a blessing, a threat or a reward.

Over the next twelve months we watch this town swirl in a series of episodes examining the characters within it. We meet the Vaughans a well to do young couple whose happiness was ruined when their only child vanished a few years ago and now are constantly haunted by the past; the extremely capable Robert Armstrong is concerned about his stepson and discovers a family tragedy resulting in his only grandchild missing while on the riverbanks the parson’s housekeeper Lily wonders if somehow on the mysterious river that her missing younger sister of many years ago has finally returned to her.

Setterfield makes a brilliant comparison with stories and a river. It’s a series of contributing tales all ultimately weaving together (some from darker places and some from the skies). The story like a river has moment of speed and action and quieter more reflective leisurely breathing spaces where even some minor characters can tell us the tale of their lives and how they fit into this world. I loved the character of Robert Armstrong a clever, kind and level-headed farmer prepared to give compassion not just to his family but animals and those we meet and whom easily makes people look beyond their prejudice based on his skin colour. There is also Rita the healer who is an atheist who left a convent and studies science for her increasing knowledge of medicine sought out by the town.

There is a whole host of characters we get to know, love and hate as the omnipresent narrator moves across from person to person as time passes.  At no stage did I find this a sprawling mess as some authors have a habit of overindulging themselves in such works but instead I felt I was in a huge episodic mystery that would easily fit the world of The Moonstone or The Woman in White with an added dose of humour.  Overall this is more a mystery as we try to establish who this young girl is, and all the theories seem valid, but this town is on the edge of the river and there is a beautiful ambiguity if this world despite the dawning of medicine and evolutionary theory is entirely rational.  On the river there may be the mysterious immortal Quietly who can either rescue a river traveller in distress or perhaps take to another place from which they will never return. With scenes set at the equinoxes and solstices there is a hint of a wild magic that may have taken an interest in these events which I think give it an eerie beauty when you see mysterious floods, supernaturally smart animals and child who now lives once more.

This is a delicious mystery that I think readers who enjoy an immersive story with lots of engaging characters and a puzzle that the reader will be both surprised and entertained by the revelations they will discover.  I found myself sucked into this tale and the world it holds which was an extremely entertaining read indeed. A perfect winter night’s tale.