“One of the most pleasurable and satisfying new books I've read in a long time. Setterfield is a master storyteller...swift and entrancing, profound and beautiful.” —Madeline Miller, internationally bestselling author of Circe and The Song of Achilles
“A beguiling tale, full of twists and turns like the river at its heart, and just as rich and intriguing.” —M.L. Stedman, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Light Between Oceans
“This is magical, bewitching storytelling...High prose expressed with rare clarity, story for the unashamed sake of story, a kind of moral dreaminess...well, the list continues to grow.”—Jim Crace, National Book Critics Circle winner and author of Being Dead and Harvest
From the instant #1 New York Times bestselling author of the “eerie and fascinating” (USA TODAY) The Thirteenth Tale comes a richly imagined, powerful new novel about the wrenching disappearance of three little girls and the wide-reaching effect it has on their small town.
On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the river Thames, an extraordinary event takes place. The regulars are telling stories to while away the dark hours, when the door bursts open on a grievously wounded stranger. In his arms is the lifeless body of a small child. Hours later, the girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation? These questions have many answers, some of them quite dark indeed.
Those who dwell on the river bank apply all their ingenuity to solving the puzzle of the girl who died and lived again, yet as the days pass the mystery only deepens. The child herself is mute and unable to answer the essential questions: Who is she? Where did she come from? And to whom does she belong? But answers proliferate nonetheless.
Three families are keen to claim her. A wealthy young mother knows the girl is her kidnapped daughter, missing for two years. A farming family reeling from the discovery of their son’s secret liaison, stand ready to welcome their granddaughter. The parson’s housekeeper, humble and isolated, sees in the child the image of her younger sister. But the return of a lost child is not without complications and no matter how heartbreaking the past losses, no matter how precious the child herself, this girl cannot be everyone’s. Each family has mysteries of its own, and many secrets must be revealed before the girl’s identity can be known.
Once Upon a River is a glorious tapestry of a book that combines folklore and science, magic and myth. Suspenseful, romantic, and richly atmospheric, the beginning of this novel will sweep you away on a powerful current of storytelling, transporting you through worlds both real and imagined, to the triumphant conclusion whose depths will continue to give up their treasures long after the last page is turned.
|Publisher:||Atria/Emily Bestler Books|
|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.60(d)|
About the Author
Diane Setterfield is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Thirteenth Tale, and a former academic, specializing in twentieth-century French literature, particularly the works of Andre Gide. She lives in Oxford, England.
Date of Birth:August 22, 1964
Place of Birth:Berkshire, England
Education:Theale Green School, Berkshire (1975-1982); B.A., University of Bristol, 1986); Ph.D. in French, 1993
Read an Excerpt
Once Upon a River
There was once an inn that sat peacefully on the bank of the Thames at Radcot, a day’s walk from the source. There were a great many inns along the upper reaches of the Thames at the time of this story and you could get drunk in all of them, but beyond the usual ale and cider each one had some particular pleasure to offer. The Red Lion at Kelmscott was musical: bargemen played their fiddles in the evening and cheesemakers sang plaintively of lost love. Inglesham had the Green Dragon, a tobacco-scented haven of contemplation. If you were a gambling man, the Stag at Eaton Hastings was the place for you, and if you preferred brawling, there was nowhere better than the Plough just outside Buscot. The Swan at Radcot had its own specialty. It was where you went for storytelling.
The Swan was a very ancient inn, perhaps the most ancient of them all. It had been constructed in three parts: one was old, one was very old, and one was older still. These different elements had been harmonized by the thatch that roofed them, the lichen that grew on the old stones, and the ivy that scrambled up the walls. In summertime day-trippers came out from the towns on the new railway, to hire a punt or a skiff at the Swan and spend an afternoon on the river with a bottle of ale and a picnic, but in winter the drinkers were all locals, and they congregated in the winter room. It was a plain room in the oldest part of the inn, with a single window pierced through the thick stone wall. In daylight this window showed you Radcot Bridge and the river flowing through its three serene arches. By night (and this story begins at night) the bridge was drowned black and it was only when your ears noticed the low and borderless sound of great quantities of moving water that you could make out the stretch of liquid blackness that flowed outside the window, shifting and undulating, darkly illuminated by some energy of its own making.
Nobody really knows how the tradition of storytelling started at the Swan, but it might have had something to do with the Battle of Radcot Bridge. In 1387, five hundred years before the night this story began, two great armies met at Radcot Bridge. The who and the why of it are too long to tell, but the outcome was that three men died in battle, a knight, a varlet, and a boy, and eight hundred souls were lost, drowned in the marshes, attempting to flee. Yes, that’s right. Eight hundred souls. That’s a lot of story. Their bones lie under what are now watercress fields. Around Radcot they grow the watercress, harvest it, crate it up, and send it to the towns on barges, but they don’t eat it. It’s bitter, they complain, so bitter it bites you back, and besides, who wants to eat leaves nourished by ghosts? When a battle like that happens on your doorstep and the dead poison your drinking water, it’s only natural that you would tell of it, over and over again. By force of repetition you would become adept at the telling. And then, when the crisis was over and you turned your attention to other things, what is more natural than that this newly acquired expertise would come to be applied to other tales? Five hundred years later they still tell the story of the Battle of Radcot Bridge, five or six times a year on special occasions.
The landlady of the Swan was Margot Ockwell. There had been Ockwells at the Swan for as long as anyone could remember, and quite likely for as long as the Swan had existed. In law her name was Margot Bliss, for she was married, but law was a thing for the towns and cities; here at the Swan she remained an Ockwell. Margot was a handsome woman in her late fifties. She could lift barrels without help and had legs so sturdy, she never felt the need to sit down. It was rumored she even slept on her feet, but she had given birth to thirteen children, so clearly she must have lain down sometimes. She was the daughter of the last landlady, and her grandmother and great-grandmother had run the inn before that, and nobody thought anything of it being women in charge at the Swan at Radcot. It was just the way it was.
Margot’s husband was Joe Bliss. He had been born at Kemble, twenty-five miles upstream, a hop and a skip from where the Thames emerges from the earth in a trickle so fine that it is scarcely more than a patch of dampness in the soil. The Blisses were chesty types. They were born small and ailing and most of them were goners before they were grown. Bliss babies grew thinner and paler as they lengthened, until they expired completely, usually before they were ten and often before they were two. The survivors, including Joe, got to adulthood shorter and slighter than average. Their chests rattled in winter, their noses ran, their eyes watered. They were kind, with mild eyes and frequent playful smiles.
At eighteen, an orphan and unfit for physical labor, Joe had left Kemble to seek his fortune doing he knew not what. From Kemble there are as many directions a man can go in as elsewhere in the world, but the river has its pull; you’d have to be mightily perverse not to follow it. He came to Radcot and, being thirsty, stopped for a drink. The frail-looking young man, with floppy black hair that contrasted with his pallor, sat unnoticed, eking out his glass of ale, admiring the innkeeper’s daughter, and listening to a story or two. He found it captivating to be among people who spoke out loud the kind of tales that had been alive inside his head since boyhood. In a quiet interval he opened his mouth and Once upon a time . . . came out.
Joe Bliss discovered his destiny that day. The Thames had brought him to Radcot and at Radcot he stayed. With a bit of practice he found he could turn his tongue to any kind of tale, whether it be gossip, historic, traditional, folk, or fairy. His mobile face could convey surprise, trepidation, relief, doubt, and any other feeling as well as any actor. Then there were his eyebrows. Luxuriantly black, they told as much of the story as his words did. They drew together when something momentous was coming, twitched when a detail merited close attention, and arched when a character might not be what he seemed. Watching his eyebrows, paying attention to their complex dance, you noticed all sorts of things that might otherwise have passed you by. Within a few weeks of his starting to drink at the Swan, he knew how to hold the listeners spellbound. He held Margot spellbound too, and she him.
At the end of a month, Joe walked sixty miles to a place quite distant from the river, where he told a story in a competition. He won first prize, naturally, and spent the winnings on a ring. He came home grey with fatigue, collapsed into bed for a week, and, at the end of it, got to his knees and proposed marriage to Margot.
“I don’t know . . .” her mother said. “Can he work? Can he earn a living? How will he look after a family?”
“Look at the takings,” Margot pointed out. “See how much busier we are since Joe started telling his stories. Suppose I don’t marry him, Ma. He might go away from here. Then what?”
It was true. People came more often to the inn these days, and from further away, and they stayed longer to hear the stories Joe told. They all bought drinks. The Swan was thriving.
“But with all these strong, handsome young men that come in here and admire you so . . . wouldn’t one of those do better?”
“It is Joe that I want,” Margot said firmly. “I like the stories.”
She got her way.
That was all nearly forty years before the events of this story, and in the meantime Margot and Joe had raised a large family. In twenty years they had produced twelve robust daughters. All had Margot’s thick brown hair and sturdy legs. They grew up to be buxom young women with blithe smiles and endless cheer. All were married now. One was a little fatter and one a little thinner, one a little taller and one a little shorter, one a little darker and one a little fairer, but in every other respect they were so like their mother that the drinkers could not tell them apart, and when they returned to help out at busy times, they were universally known as Little Margot. After bearing all these girls there had been a lull in the family life of Margot and Joe, and both of them thought her years of child-bearing were at an end, but then came the last pregnancy and Jonathan, their only son.
With his short neck and his moon face, his almond eyes with their exaggerated upward tilt, his dainty ears and nose, the tongue that seemed too big for his constantly smiling mouth, Jonathan did not look like other children. As he grew it became clear that he was different from them in other ways too. He was fifteen now, but where other boys of his age were looking forward impatiently to manhood, Jonathan was content to believe that he would live at the inn forever with his mother and father, and wished for nothing else.
Margot was still a strong and handsome woman, and Joe’s hair had whitened, though his eyebrows were as dark as ever. He was now sixty, which was ancient for a Bliss. People put his survival down to the endlessness of Margot’s care for him. These last few years he was sometimes so weak that he lay in bed for two or three days at a time, eyes closed. He was not sleeping—no, it was a place beyond sleep that he visited in these periods. Margot took his sinking spells calmly. She kept the fire in to dry the air, tilted cooled broth between his lips, brushed his hair, and smoothed his eyebrows. Other people fretted to see him suspended so precariously between one liquid breath and the next, but Margot took it in her stride. “Don’t you worry, he’ll be all right,” she would tell you. And he was. He was a Bliss, that’s all. The river had seeped into him and made his lungs marshy.
It was solstice night, the longest night of the year. For weeks the days had been shrinking, first gradually, then precipitously, so that it was now dark by mid-afternoon. As is well-known, when the moon hours lengthen, human beings come adrift from the regularity of their mechanical clocks. They nod at noon, dream in waking hours, open their eyes wide to the pitch-black night. It is a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, and the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen. Did the solstice have anything to do with the strange events at the Swan? You will have to judge for yourself.
Now you know everything you need to know, the story can begin.
The drinkers gathered in the Swan that night were the regulars. Gravel diggers, cressmen, and bargemen for the most part, but Beszant the boat mender was there too, and so was Owen Albright, who had followed the river to the sea half a century ago and returned two decades later a wealthy man. Albright was arthritic now, and only strong ale and storytelling could reduce the pain in his bones. They had been there since the light had drained out of the sky, emptying and refilling their glasses, tapping out their pipes and restuffing them with pungent tobacco and telling stories.
Albright was recounting the Battle of Radcot Bridge. After five hundred years any story is liable to get a bit stale, and the storytellers had found a way to enliven the telling of it. Certain parts of the tale were fixed by tradition—the armies, their meeting, the death of the knight and his varlet, the eight hundred drowned men—but the boy’s demise was not. Not a thing was known about him except that he was a boy, at Radcot Bridge, and he died there. Out of this void came invention. At each retelling the drinkers at the Swan raised the unknown boy from the dead in order to inflict upon him a new death. He had died countless times over the years, in ways ever more outlandish and entertaining. When a story is yours to tell, you are allowed to take liberties with it—though woe betide any visitor to the Swan who attempted the same thing. What the boy himself made of his regular resurrection is impossible to say, but the point is raising the dead was a not infrequent thing at the Swan, and that’s a detail worth remembering.
Tonight Owen Albright conjured him in the garb of a young entertainer, come to distract the troops while they awaited their orders. Juggling with knives, he slipped in the mud and the knives rained down around him, landing blade down in wet earth, all but the last one, which fell plumb into his eye and killed him instantly before the battle had even begun. The innovation elicited murmurs of appreciation, quickly dampened so the tale could continue, and from then on the tale ran pretty much as it always did.
Afterwards there was a pause. It wasn’t done to jump in too quickly with a new story before the last one was properly digested.
Jonathan had been listening closely.
“I wish I could tell a story,” he said.
He was smiling—Jonathan was a boy who was always smiling—but he sounded wistful. He was not stupid, but school had been baffling to him, the other children had laughed at his peculiar face and strange ways, and he had given it up after a few months. He had not mastered reading or writing. The winter regulars were used to the Ockwell lad, with all his oddness.
“Have a go,” Albright suggested. “Tell one now.”
Jonathan considered it. He opened his mouth and waited, agog, to hear what emerged from it. Nothing did. His face screwed tight with laughter and his shoulders squirmed in hilarity at himself.
“I can’t!” he exclaimed when he recovered himself. “I can’t do it!”
“Some other night, then. You have a bit of a practice and we’ll listen to you when you’re ready.”
“You tell a story, Dad,” Jonathan said. “Go on!”
It was Joe’s first night back in the winter room after one of his sinking spells. He was pale and had been silent all evening. Nobody expected a story from him in his frail state, but at the prompting of his son he smiled mildly and looked up to a high corner of the room where the ceiling was darkened from years of woodsmoke and tobacco. This was the place, Jonathan supposed, where his father’s stories came from. When Joe’s eyes returned to the room, he was ready and opened his mouth to speak.
“Once upon a—”
The door opened.
It was late for a newcomer. Whoever it was did not rush to come in. The cold draft set the candles flickering and carried the tang of the winter river into the smoky room. The drinkers looked up.
Every eye saw, yet for a long moment none reacted. They were trying to make sense of what they were seeing.
The man—if man it was—was tall and strong, but his head was monstrous and they boggled at the sight of it. Was it a monster from a folktale? Were they sleeping and this a nightmare? The nose was askew and flattened, and beneath it was a gaping hollow dark with blood. As sights went, it was horrifying enough, but in its arms the awful creature carried a large puppet, with waxen face and limbs and slickly painted hair.
What roused them to action was the man himself. He first roared, a great bellow as misshapen as the mouth it emerged from, then he staggered and swayed. A pair of farmhands jumped from their seats just in time to grab him under the arms and arrest his fall so that he did not smash his head on the flagstones. At the same time Jonathan Ockwell leapt forward from the fireside, arms outstretched, and into them dropped the puppet with a solid weightiness that took his joints and muscles by surprise.
Returning to their senses, they hoisted the unconscious man onto a table. A second table was dragged so that the man’s legs could be rested upon it. Then when he was laid down and straightened out, they all stood around and raised their candles and lamps over him. The man’s eyes did not flicker.
“Is he dead?” Albright wondered.
There was a round of indistinct murmurs and much frowning.
“Slap his face,” someone suggested. “See if that brings him round.”
“A tot of liquor’ll do it,” another suggested.
Margot elbowed her way to the top of the table and studied the man. “Don’t you go slapping him. Not with his face in that state. Nor pouring anything down his throat. Just you wait a minute.”
Margot turned away to the seat by the hearth. On it was a cushion, and she picked it up and carried it back to the light. With the aid of the candles she spotted a pinprick of white on the cotton. Picking at it with her fingernail, she drew out a feather. The men’s faces watched her, eyes wide with bewilderment.
“I don’t think you’ll wake a dead man by tickling him,” said a gravel digger. “Nor a live one either, not in this state.”
“I’m not going to tickle him,” she replied.
Margot laid the feather on the man’s lips. All peered. For a moment there was nothing, then the soft and plumy parts of the feather shivered.
The relief soon gave way to renewed perplexity.
“Who is it, though?” a bargeman asked. “Do anyone know him?”
There followed a few moments of general hubbub, during which they considered the question. One reckoned he knew everybody on the river from Castle Eaton to Duxford, which was some ten miles, and he was sure he didn’t know the fellow. Another had a sister in Lechlade and was certain he had never seen the man there. A third felt that he might have seen the man somewhere, but the longer he looked, the less willing he was to put money on it. A fourth wondered whether he was a river gypsy, for it was the time of year when their boats came down this stretch of the river, to be stared at with suspicion, and everybody made sure to lock their doors at night and bring inside anything that could be lifted. But with that good woolen jacket and his expensive leather boots—no. This was not a ragged gypsy man. A fifth stared and then, with triumph, remarked that the man was the very height and build of Liddiard from Whitey’s Farm, and was his hair not the same color too? A sixth pointed out that Liddiard was here at the other end of the table, and when the fifth looked across, he could not deny it. At the end of these and further discussions, it was agreed by one, two, three, four, five, six, and all the others present that they didn’t know him—at least they didn’t think so—but, looking as he did, who could be certain?
Into the silence that followed this conclusion, a seventh man spoke. “Whatever has befallen him?”
The man’s clothes were soaking wet, and the smell of the river, green and brown, was on him. Some accident on the water, that much was obvious. They talked of dangers on the river, of the water that played tricks on even the wisest of rivermen.
“Is there a boat? Shall I go and see if I can spy one?” Beszant the boat mender offered.
Margot was washing the blood from the man’s face with firm and gentle motions. She winced as she revealed the great gash that split his upper lip and divided his skin into two flaps that gaped to show his broken teeth and bloodied gum.
“Leave the boat,” she instructed. “It is the man that matters. There is more here than I can help with. Who will run for Rita?” She looked round and spotted one of the farmhands who was too poor to drink much. “Neath, you are quick on your feet. Can you run along to Rush Cottage and fetch the nurse without stumbling? One accident is quite enough for one night.”
The young man left.
Jonathan meanwhile had kept apart from the others. The weight of the drenched puppet was cumbersome, so he sat down and arranged it on his lap. He thought of the papier-mâché dragon that the troupe of guisers had brought for a play last Christmastime. It was light and hard and had rapped with a light tat-tat-tat if you beat your fingernails against it. This puppet was not made of that. He thought of the dolls he had seen, stuffed with rice. They were weighty and soft. He had never seen one this size. He sniffed its head. There was no smell of rice—only the river. The hair was made of real hair, and he couldn’t work out how they had joined it to the head. The ear was so real, they might have molded it from a real one. He marveled at the perfect precision of the lashes. Putting his fingertip gently to the soft, damp, tickling ends of them caused the lid to move a little. He touched the lid with the gentlest of touches, and there was something behind. Slippery and globular, it was soft and firm at the same time.
Something darkly unfathomable gripped him. Behind the backs of his parents and the drinkers, he gave the figure a gentle shake. An arm slid and swung from the shoulder joint, in a way a puppet’s arm ought not to swing, and he felt a rising water level, powerful and rapid, inside him.
“It is a little girl.”
In all the discussion around the injured man, nobody heard.
Again, louder: “It is a little girl!”
“She won’t wake up.” He held out the sodden little body so that they might see for themselves.
They turned. They moved to stand around Jonathan. A dozen pairs of stricken eyes rested on the little body.
Her skin shimmered like water. The folds of her cotton frock were plastered to the smooth lines of the limbs, and her head tilted on her neck at an angle no puppeteer could achieve. She was a little girl, and they had not seen it, not one of them, though it was obvious. What maker would go to such lengths, making a doll of such perfection only to dress it in the cotton smock any pauper’s daughter might wear? Who would paint a face in that macabre and lifeless manner? What maker other than the good Lord had it in him to make the curve of that cheekbone, the planes of that shin, that delicate foot with five toes individually shaped and sized and detailed? Of course it was a little girl! How could they ever have thought otherwise?
In the room usually so thick with words, there was silence. The men who were fathers thought of their own children and resolved to show them nothing but love till the end of their days. Those who were old and had never known a child of their own suffered a great pang of absence, and those who were childless and still young were pierced with the longing to hold their own offspring in their arms.
At last the silence was broken.
“Dead, poor mite.”
“Put the feather on her lips, Ma!”
“Oh, Jonathan. It is too late for her.”
“But it worked with the man!”
“No, son, he was breathing already. The feather only showed us the life that was still in him.”
“It might still be in her!”
“It is plain she is gone, poor lass. She is not breathing, and besides, you have only to look at her color. Who will carry the poor child to the long room? You take her, Higgs.”
“But it’s cold there,” Jonathan protested.
His mother patted his shoulder. “She won’t mind that. She is not really here anymore and it is never cold in the place she has gone to.”
“Let me carry her.”
“You carry the lantern, and unlock the door for Mr. Higgs. She’s heavy for you, my love.”
The gravel digger took the body from Jonathan’s failing grip and lifted her as though she weighed no more than a goose. Jonathan lit the way out and round the side to a small stone outbuilding. A thick wooden door gave onto a narrow windowless storeroom. The floor was of plain earth, and the walls had never been plastered or paneled or painted. In summer it was a good place to leave a plucked duck or a trout that you are not yet hungry for; on a winter night like this one it was bitter. Projecting from one wall was a stone slab, and it was here that Higgs laid her down. Jonathan, remembering the fragility of the papier-mâché, cradled her skull—“So as not to hurt her”—as it came into contact with the stone.
Higgs’s lantern cast a circle of light onto the girl’s face.
“Ma said she’s dead,” Jonathan said.
“That’s right, lad.”
“Ma says she’s in another place.”
“She looks as though she’s here, to me.”
“Her thoughts have emptied out of her. Her soul has passed.”
“Couldn’t she be asleep?”
“Nay, lad. She’d’ve woke up by now.”
The lantern cast flickering shadows onto the unmoving face, the warmth of its light tried to mask the dead white of the skin, but it was no substitute for the inner illumination of life.
“There was a girl who slept for a hundred years, once. She was woke up with a kiss.”
Higgs blinked fiercely. “I think that was just a story.”
The circle of light shifted from the girl’s face and illuminated Higgs’s feet as they made their way out again, but at the door he discovered that Jonathan was not beside him. Turning, he raised the lantern again in time to see him stoop and place a kiss on the child’s forehead in the darkness.
Jonathan watched the girl intently. Then his shoulders slumped.
They locked the door behind them and came away.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Once Upon a River includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames, the regulars are entertaining one another by telling stories. The night is interrupted when the door bursts open on an injured stranger carrying the drowned corpse of a little child.
Hours later the dead girl opens her eyes and lives again. In the face of this event, the witnesses attempt to explain the impossible in a great outburst of storytelling. Was it a miracle? Is it magic? Or could there be a scientific explanation for the girl who died and lived again?
The mystery deepens. Where did the child come from, and where does she belong? Who is she? Those who dwell on the riverbank grow increasingly fascinated by the mystery child, and the fates of three families in particular are connected by the mystery that began at the Swan on that winter’s night.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. The Swan Inn, Buscot Lodge, and the towns and villages along the river Thames create a very specific atmosphere for the story that unfolds. What role does the Swan itself play? Could this story have taken place anywhere else?
2. To judge by such details as photography and transport as described in the novel, the events appear to be set in the 1870s or thereabouts. Could the novel have been set at another time in history? What would have had to be different if the author had chosen another period?
3. What is the significance of the river?
4. By the time Vaughan had written a concise two-page account of Amelia’s kidnapping to his father in New Zealand, “the horror of it was quite excised.” What effect does the act of storytelling have on Vaughan? What about the other characters?
5. A wedge is driven between the Vaughans as they struggle to come to terms with the loss of Amelia. In the end, what brings them together? How?
6. How does Robert Armstrong, raised outside family life in circumstances of financially cushioned neglect, turn out to be such a good man?
7. “Sometimes I think there is nothing more a man can do. A child is not an empty vessel, Fleet, to be formed in whatever way the parent thinks fit. They are born with their own hearts and they cannot be made otherwise, no matter what love a man lavishes on them.” Do you agree with Armstrong’s lament at the end of the book? Is it possible if he had been a different kind of father things might have turned out differently for Robin?
8. Is Lily White responsible for her actions?
9. Consider the importance of family in the novel. What does it mean to Robert Armstrong? What does family mean to Daunt and Rita? And Victor? What about Lily?
10. It’s easy to get carried away talking about the key families in the plot, the Vaughans, the Armstrongs, and Lily and her brother, but what about the family at the inn? What important functions do they perform? And what do the drinkers—largely unnamed—add?
11. Storytelling is central to Once Upon a River. The story of Quietly the ferryman is an invention of the author, but it contains many elements from traditional or mythological tales. Does it remind you of any other stories in particular?
12. How many types or styles of story are told in Once Upon a River? Be as wide in your interpretation of “story” as you like!
13. Folk beliefs are still alive on the riverbank—changelings, witches, and dragons are all still real to some, and the Armstrongs believe Bess has a Seeing eye. What are the real-life consequences of these stories? Which characters have faith in these stories, and which do not? How does it affect their actions?
14. In the context of women’s lives in the nineteenth century, what do you make of Rita’s reluctance to marry? What brings her to reconsider?
15. Is the fortune-telling pig mere light relief or something more?
16. The identity of the girl is one of the driving mysteries of Once Upon a River. What were your early thoughts about who she really was, and did they alter as the story developed? What did you think of the way this question was resolved at the end?
17. The ending elaborates on the “return to life” of children apparently drowned. Did this come as a surprise to you?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The art of oral storytelling is at the heart of Once Upon a River. It used to be central in every human society, but with the advent of literacy, and then TV and cinema, it has become rare to gather to listen to someone tell a story from memory. How about resurrecting the art by devoting part of a book club meeting to telling stories aloud?
2. Man is said to be the storytelling ape. Stories are the way people make sense of the world and their place in it. Are there stories (family stories or personal ones) that have shaped you and your sense of the world?
3. Diane Setterfield’s book The Thirteenth Tale was made into a BBC film starring Vanessa Redgrave, and Once Upon a River is to be a television series. Whom would you cast to bring the mysterious events of the Swan in Once Upon a River to life? Share your casting picks for Margot, Joe, Jonathan, Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong, Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan, Rita, Daunt, Lily White, Victor, and the others with your book club.
4. Many of the settings in the book are based on real places that stand today in England: Ye Olde Swan, still a working pub; Buscot House (the model for Buscot Lodge), now owned by the National Trust and open for visits; and Kelmscott Manor, a grand house also open to visitors, are all situated along the Thames in Oxfordshire. Should you be so lucky to go, start planning your trip at www.experienceoxfordshire.org. And if you can’t go in person, how about a virtual trip down the Thames at www.thames.me.uk?
5. Learn more about author Diane Setterfield by visiting her website at www.dianesetterfield.com, or following her on Facebook.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is the most long winded book I think I've ever read. It's been a long time since a book has given me feelings of dread every time I picked it up. Although I've never read a book by this author, I was nonetheless excited to dive into this one based on the rave reviews for not only this book but for Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. Not every author and/or book is for everybody and this one was certainly not my glass of chocolate milk. While the prose is without a doubt prolific, the story crawled at an excruciating pace with pages and pages of descriptive text. Some have commented that the prolonged details are necessary in the telling of the story, I humbly disagree. There are a ton of characters in this story and while they are all fleshed out to the nth degree, I didn't care about or relate to any of them. There is a lot of magic, as well religious undertones in this story, both of which turned me off immediately as I tend to steer clear of those subjects. I realize that I am in the tiniest of minority of people that feel this book fell way short of expectations while most every other reviewer fell in love with this book. I do not discourage readers from picking this one up for that reason alone. 2 Stars for the writing ?? I was provided an ARC of this book by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
The story is like the river. Sometimes swift and furious and then it meanders and becomes placid. Several stories within a larger plot. The loose ends are all connected in the end.
A Thames River tale is at the heart of this novel. The river and the legend draw together all the characters and all the threads of their mysteries. Life & death & life again. Love lost and then found. Optimistic in the end as a reward for searching for, finding, and facing truth.
At winter solstice in the Swan at Radcot, a weathered pub beside the Thames river, where stories are told and retold round the bar and a roaring fire, a man washes up, banged-up and nearly dead, with a very young girl, as lifeless as a mannequin. Until her eyes flutter open. Is it a miracle? No one can tell; not the town nurse, Rita, who aided her, nor the others who witnessed her carried in. But then a mystery ensues: whose child is she? More than one family comes to claim the girl, and the evidence each family contains only adds to the mystery. Does she belong to the wealthy white family who longed for a child for many years? Does she belong to the mixed-race family, with a dead mother and a father who abandoned her, leaving her dark-skinned grandfather to claim her? What credence should be given to the slow-minded girl who lives in a derelict cottage further down the river and insists that the baby is her lost sister? And what evidence is there for each claim? Each family’s secrets will unveil the darkest branches of their histories, at the stake of finding the right home for the little girl. Full of mysteries, town secrets, and old legends, Once Upon a River is about a place where miracles and myth follow the river to display the influence of family and having a good story to tell on a cold, wintery night. For discussion questions, a list of similar reads, and an accompanying recipe for super easy cinnamon apple buns, visit http://hub.me/amsos.
I received a free advance copy of this title via netgalley and the publisher. My review is unsolicited and opinions are my own. This book is phenomenal and I don’t toss high praise around lightly. Every page is another layer to an expertly executed lush tapestry. The first two chapters were a little slow to grasp my interest but once I passed them I could not stop reading.
I've read Diane Setterfield's previous two historical fiction novels and really enjoyed them. But her latest, Once Upon a River? Absolutely fantastic! 1887. A pub in a small village on the River Thames. And what is a pub if not a gathering place, a place to catch up with neighbours and friends and a place to tell stories. Many stories are told of the dark and stormy night that Henry Daunt stumbled into The Swan, half dead and carrying a small girl. The girl appears to be dead....but miraculously isn't. But who is she? Many claim to know her, but is she Ann? Amelia? Alice? "In this room, in this inn, they had seen her dead and seen her alive. Unknowable, ungraspable, inexplicable, still one thing was plain: she was their story." I was drawn into Setterfield's tale from the opening pages. I could picture myself sitting in a cozy corner of the pub, listening to the stories being told. Once Upon a River has a delicious fairy tale feel to it. We are introduced into a wealth of characters as the search for who the child is begins. Each and every one is wonderfully drawn. And as with a fairy tale, you'll find the 'good' and the 'bad' very easy to determine. I was drawn to so many of the 'good' ones. But my favourite has to be Robert Armstrong, a farmer who plays a pivotal role in this tale. His goodness shines through, his determination to do the right thing. And...he talks to his pigs. And the pigs seem to understand and answer with their eyes. A close second was Rita Sunday - a no nonsense nurse whose crisp exterior covers up her heart's desire - and fears. But the entire book revolves around this character - the water, the River Thames. The water gives and takes, holds memories of what has gone and knows what should be. Who the girl might be (and was she really dead?) is at the center of the book. And the answer to that drives the book forward in a measured, meandering, magical journey. Setterfield's prose are wonderful and the story captivated me. I was sad to turn the last page. But so very glad I read this one. Once Upon a River has found a forever home on my bookshelf. "And now, dear reader, the story is over. It is time for you to cross the bridge once more and return to the world you came from. This river, which is and is not the Thames, must continue flowing without you. You have haunted here long enough, and besides, surely you have rivers of your own to attend to?"
How Dreamy is this Fantasy, Once Upon a River? Diane Setterfield is a brilliant writer. The intertwining of story, the life experiences that cross over into other realms. The confusion that one little baby can create. Is so well told that you just can't put this book down. If you love fantasy like Inkheart; Lord of the Rings; The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe I can see you falling in love with this book.
Loved the pace, loved the unfurling connections throughout this wonderful story. Masterful story, filled with magic and real life centering on the river that flows through the lives of complex, wonderfully drawn characters. I was enraptured from the first sentence and read breathless this perfectly paced, excellent novel.
In a tavern off the coast of the Thames, locals come to hear stories and drink their troubles away. Some of them are about to play a part in a story that myths and legends are made from. A little girl is brought to the tavern saved by a man who happened to see her in the river. The man passes out from exhaustion and the girl is believed dead. After the local healer comes to aide the man and confirms the child’s fate. Even though the girl appears dead to the knowledgable healer she suddenly starts breathing. As the girl and man heal the hunt is on to find her family. The strange thing is 3 families want to claim her as theirs. One couple who lost their daughter 2 years ago, one widowed man searching for his young daughter, and one sister who thought she harmed her missed sister many years ago. Told like an Irish fairy tale, Once Upon A River is a mystical tale of what can destruct a relationship and what can heal it. I loved this book from beginning to end. Anything told in a way that reminds me of an old Irish fairy tale will usually get high praise from me, especially if the story is not predictable. I thought as I started the book the time period it takes place in would only be in the intro to the story and the time period would fast forward to our time later. It does not. The book stays in the same time period throughout the book. Which for me added to the mystical side. The three families who believe the girl is their’s and who the girl really is or where she belongs is a big mystery until the end. The fact that I could not predict any of the storylines is a plus for me. When my brain works out what is going to happen next I get bored. Same happens with tv shows and movies for me too. I read Diane Setterfield first book The Thirteenth Tale. Everything in that first book that I wanted The Thirteenth Tale to be, is in this new book. I don’t any thoughts on how to make it better because Once Upon A River is best as it is. Diane Setterfield does have a mastery of words that I can not really figure out how one does write as she does. I am curious at what is next for this author. I could see a sequel or some of these characters popping up again in future books but that is not for me to decide.
Don't Pay the Ferryman! For her third novel Diane Setterfield continues to be inspired with the gothic theme producing a deliciously intriguing and mysterious tale combining elements of historical fact and geography with folklore and the supernatural. The novel is set among the environs of the Upper Thames during the middle of the 19th century where daily life has remained largely unchanged for generations and where the people unquestioningly believe in the local folklore and superstitions. However we know that this way of life will soon be gone for ever as the railways have just arrived and new inventions like photography are making an appearance. So it is in the closely nit world of the local ancient inn on the Thames's bank with its tradition of storytelling by the regulars that the story begins. Dramatically on midwinter’s night a stranger enters the inn carrying the corpse of a drowned young girl. Miraculously a few hours later the girl returns to life although she has become mute. Who is she? and how did she get into the river?. It is not long before three claimants for the girl emerge but each of their stories have flaws and inconsistencies leaving the reader trying to decide which of the three parties she belongs to or indeed is there another explanation that is outside the laws of rationality and science. With a cast of characters that is truly Dickensian in terms of numbers and memorability from the tragic to the truly villainous, Setterfield has created a world that is both believable but somehow strange due to the presence of the supernatural always lurking in the background. It took a while for me to get into this novel and it is somewhat of a slow burner but the more I read the more engrossed I became. There will inevitably be comparisons to such novels as the Essex Serpent but I was also reminded of Hardy with its description of a rural world in transition. Overall an entertaining and absorbing read.
An interesting story, a good story, which winds and meanders like the river it is set upon. The people, their ways and their lives are all laid before us. A child who appears to be dead comes back to life and enlivens the people in the area, changes lives and then moves on.
I’ve heard so many things about this book, so I picked it up hoping that it lived up to all that was said. There were many times I took a deep breath and thought oh yea, this is all that and so much more. I am new to Diane Setterfield so I was also excited to read a new to me author. Happily, I can now say that I am a fan and Diane is a must-read author. Once Upon a River is a slow burn story. There is a lot of description of the towns, the river, the surrounding areas, and the people. For me, that brought the story to life and made it more enjoyable as I was able to picture what I was reading about, hear the voices of the characters, and hear the sounds of the area. There are a lot of characters to keep track of and at the beginning I did have to go back and look at previous paragraphs to be sure I was keeping straight who was who but as I continued reading the characters all came together, I was easily able to keep straight who was who, and it was fun to see how they all came together to complete the story. The story, oh my… I was so caught up in it that I spent an entire Saturday just sitting and reading it. There was no hope that I would be stopping until I finished the entire book. There is magic, there is love, there is family, and there is a mystery all woven together to make a wonderful story. I felt a pull of the paranormal which just put it closer to being one of my favorites. While it is still early in 2019 I can see this becoming a book that I talk about throughout the year. It very well could make it into my best of 2019 list and is a book that I will recommend over and over again.
The story starts with a mysterious man & little girl arriving at a small town pub late in the night. The man has pulled the girl from the river and she appears to be dead, but then revives inexplicably. She is initially believed to be the daughter of a local couple whose child was kidnapped years before, but something just doesn't add about about this silent girl. Many begin to wonder about her - where did she come from, why was she in the river, and how did she come back from death? This book was mysterious and lyrical. It had this air of a fairy tale about it, slightly mystical and magical, yet also rooted in a group of wonderful characters in 19th century England. The story started off a little slow for me, but once I got going, I was captivated by the mystery, and the way that all of the seemingly unrelated characters started coming together. It would be hard for me to enjoy a book as much as I did her previous novel, The Thirteenth Tale, but this book came close. It would be great for a book club too.
I've been on a historical fiction kick lately so Once Upon a River came along at the perfect time for me and I recalled enjoying Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale so I decided to give this a shot too. Once Upon a River was a compelling story although it got a bit slow in the middle for me and meandered a little (I guess a bit like the river itself) but pulled itself together in the end quite nicely. The reader is introduced to an interesting cast of characters and in fact, the river was like a character of its own with a very strong personality and presence throughout the story. I found this to be interesting combination of science and mythology (dare I say fact and fiction?) with elements of both strongly appearing throughout.
A crowd has gathered at The Swan, an ancient inn on the Thames River, known for its storytelling of Joe Bliss, the husband of the Inn's landlady. On the longest night of the year the most unbelievable story yet comes to life when a wounded man comes staggering in and collapses, caught by some of the men at the inn. He appears to be carrying a doll or puppet but the crowd shocked again when they discover it's the lifeless body of a small child. Who is the child? We follow stories down 3 branches of the river until they merge at the atmospheric setting of the Inn and its storytellers. I was hooked from page one. There were a couple of times I thought the story might ramble a bit too much, but in each instance Setterfield tossed a bone for me to chew. She drew her characters beautifully and used them to draw you into every subplot. This book is a mystery/folklore/fantasy/fairy tale. It is the perfect dark winter's night read. In short, this is a thumping good read. Thanks to NetGalley and Atria Books/Emily Bestler for allowing me to read an advance copy in exchange for my fair and honest review.
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.
I was so intrigued when I first read that Diane Setterfield had a new book coming out soon, and was even more intrigued when i was offered an E-ARC through Net Galley in exchange for a review. The author has such a gift for unique storytelling. Her stories take long, dark twists as the book proceeds, and the reader winds up far removed from the opening lines. It is the story of a river, and a mysterious girl who remarkably comes back from the dead - but who is she, really? Several families are anxious to claim her as their own, and the cast of characters are full and well imagined. It is a dark story, as was The Thirteenth Tale, and the darkness of the story takes the reader along a similar path; the author's words making the reader feel the fear, the despair, the cold wetness of the river, and it's dank, wet odors. It is not an easy story to read or to follow, but it does offer a mysterious, intriguing chain of events. If you like books that are a bit creepy, dark, sad, convoluted, full of what-if plausibility, this would be a good book to get lost in.
Thanks to the publisher for the free review copy. This has turned out to be one of those books I loved so much, I can’t seem to find the words to express myself. I was sucked in from the very start and was so completely engrossed in the magical fairytale feel of it that I lost track of time every time I sat down with it. I loved everything about it from the storyline, to the characters, to the setting, to the ambiance. Everything. If you’re even the least bit intrigued by the synopsis, I highly recommend you pick it up.
Storytelling at the Swan is the favorite past time of the crowd and the reason so many men stop by for their drinks. One night the storytelling became real when a man who had been hurt and a small girl who appeared as if she had drowned fell through the inn’s front door. Then a miracle happened....the girl came alive again. The townspeople and their storytelling ways had many questions, and some thought the girl was one of their own who had passed. We follow the characters as they try to interpret what happened as we are treated to Ms. Setterfield’s beautiful, poetic, descriptive style. And...we can’t forget the character, the Thames River....it is a part of everyone’s lives and what the story line revolves around. The ending of each character’s story made the statement....”Something is going to happen,” and something definitely did. ONCE UPON A RIVER beautifully and slowly unfolded as the mystery of the little girl was revealed and as we learn about the lives of the characters. If you enjoy a Gothic theme, and a story line with intriguing as well as odd characters, ONCE UPON A RIVER should be a book you will enjoy. I do have to say it was a bit long, but Ms. Setterfield's marvelous storytelling skills make you want it to go on even longer especially once the mystery is revealed and you find out more about the characters. 4/5 This book was given to me free of charge by the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
There are times when you come across a book that warms you to the bone, but those books are far and few. I cannot even begin to put into words how this book made me feel once I finished it. I have read mixed reviews regarding the complexity of the plot and characters. I personally didn't feel lost or overwhelmed. In fact, I loved that there were so many characters and that they all played a part in the story. Each character seemed to have an integral part to play and it all melded together perfectly at the end. It was quite the mystery as well for those who enjoy sleuthing. There was a series of events, each with it's own mystery that kept me hooked! I wouldn't say there was one main character who carried the book but there were definitely favorites. Especially, the pet pigs! I loved how they had their own personalities brought to life. Sometimes books will be great throughout the beginning and middle and somehow just miss it at the end. This ending was one of the best endings I have ever read! I would undoubtedly have been succumbed into a book hangover had it not been for the sole reason that I tend to read multiple books at a time.
No one writing today blurs the lines between reality and magic as deftly and hauntingly as Diane Setterfield. Once Upon a River is a story about the stories we tell and the power that storytelling has to shape and reshape reality into what we need it to be. On a dark winter's night, a dead child is heroically pulled from the river until suddenly the child is not dead, but alive again with no memory of where she came from and more than one person claiming to know who she is. As her story is told and retold based on the needs of multiple townpeople, years old secrets and lies are opened and revealed. Reality is shaped and reshaped and shaped again, but when the truest version of the story finally reveals itself, will the community be able to bear the weight of it? Once upon a River is a story suspended between reality and fairytale, a place where Setterfield is masterfully at home. Time and again, I lost myself in the quiet fog of the Thames as I traveled deeper into the story. Richly atmospheric and richly told, this is a story best enjoyed slowly and with little interruption. I was utterly captivated from the first scene and highly satisfied by the unusual ending. Thank you to Net Galley for providing a free copy of this book for unbiased review.
Superb. Memorable. Exquisite writing.
I was provided with a complimentary copy of this book so I could give an honest review. "Once Upon the River" by Diane Setterfield is a difficult book to categorize. It’s part fairy tale, part mystery, part fantasy, and has a dash of historical fiction thrown in for good measure. It revolves around a little town, its pub, its residents, and the river that flow nearby. The residents are a colorful cast of characters. I enjoyed Setterfield’s use of the pub’s regulars and how they helped move the story along with their storytelling. Storytelling is a significant topic discussed in the story. I found the beginning of the story confusing. I think it was because of all of the people involved in the storyline. Three separate storylines run parallel and intermingle in the story. Once I was able to keep the characters straight I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I also listened to a preview of the corresponding audiobook and recommend that also. The narrator, Juliet Stevenson, uses different voices that allows the listener to clearly recognize that character. I devoured Setterfield’s “The Thirteenth Tale” (my rating is 4 out of 5 stars) and now “Once Upon a River” (4 stars rating). Diane Setterfield is now an author I follow and am looking forward to her next story.
I associate Diane Setterfield with serendipity. Twelve years ago I was browsing at my library when the cover of The Thirteenth Tale caught my eye. I quickly picked up and read the synopsis and right then and there, I knew this was going to be a book I’d love. I started reading as soon as I got home—not my norm but I was powerless to resist the story. The Thirteenth Tale is still one of my favorite novels all these years later and I loved her second novel Bellman & Black as well. Setterfield makes us wait years between novels and I can say with confidence they’re worth the wait. She really knows how to build a story! The atmosphere and mood in her latest is sheer perfection. In addition to a large cast of characters, Story becomes a character itself and the River winding through town stands as a lovely metaphor for so many things. Once Upon A River is heavily imbued with symbolism and I couldn’t get enough of it. The story really begins when a man rescues a young girl from a river. She is dead but then comes back to life. At least, that’s what appears to happen. The townspeople are quite split on the truth. The driving question is not only who the girl is but how do they explain her. As to the first, there are two individuals or a couple who feel they have a claim on the girl as their daughter or sister has been missing. She becomes a projection, a way they can avoid their grief, because it’s not clear who she is or where she came from or why. And it becomes clear, while there are several who want to take care of her, not everyone has her best interest’s at heart. The story explores identity and image, family and sacrifice, and truth and story in such lovely, nuanced ways. This is one to savor. Let yourself get lost in the pages for a while—but don’t get so lost that the many characters start to confuse you. This was a 5 star read until about the last 40 pages, when I began to feel as if I was reading an altogether different book. Rita and Armstrong, two of my favorite characters, made choices that either seemed contrary to who they were or were a sign of a serious lack of growth. I felt let down by their choices, though other readers might not. The ending was overly neat. I was a bit flummoxed by how much my reading experience had changed. I’m also not certain about the representation. Armstrong is a Black man and I’m curious how Black reviewers would find his portrayal and whether it veers into the Magical Negro trope, as I suspect it might. There were also repeated references to river Gypsies in a derogatory manner and I question the use of such a negative and offensive stereotype, particularly because it did not ultimately serve the plot. There’s also a concerning correlation surrounding Robin, Armstrong’s adopted son, especially given later events. However, I’m still thinking about this haunting story days and weeks later. Setterfield doesn’t answer all of our questions. Just as her characters try to come up with a story to explain the events they witness, so we too must wrestle with her story and decide where we fall. I find I’m better for it. CW: child kidnapping, suicide, assault, domestic violence, rape, death of a child, grief Disclosure: I received an advanced copy from BookishFirst in exchange for an honest review.