I loved Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, a wonderful gothic mystery with storytelling at its heart, but I was really disappointed with Setterfield’s second book, Bellman & Black. I’m happy to report fabulous storytelling is back in her third novel, Once Upon a River.
In Once Upon a River, storytelling is rooted in the walls of The Swan, a rundown bar on the River Thames filled with locals telling tales, trying to outdo each other. Many of their stories are different takes on a centuries-old war that took place on the land surrounding them, but one night changes the trajectory of their stories forever. On a wicked, stormy night, an injured man bursts through the doors of The Swan with a dead girl in his hands. Or at least they thought she was dead.
By the time a healing woman arrives and declares the girl alive, stories are already being formulated about who she is and what happened. These stories quickly travel throughout the surrounding area and three different groups of people come to claim the girl, all saying she is someone else. Thus begins the mystery of the mute, not-so-dead girl, and all the people who claimed her.
Set in an unspecified past, before modern conveniences like indoor plumbing and automobiles, Once Upon a River is steeped in folktales and legends, where history is passed down through stories and good storytellers are revered. Setterfield could be revered as one of these storytellers because the prose here is so beautiful. Each character is fully fleshed out and all the elements of the story come crashing together in the end perfectly. I also loved the little bit of magical realism because it makes complete sense in a community where lore and legend are believed.
This is definitely not a fast-paced book, the story unfolds slowly as we learn about these people, so it’s a perfect book to lose yourself in during the next winter storm. Light a fire, grab a blanket and a cup of hot chocolate, and dive in.