Friday, December 7, 2018

Book Review: "Once Upon a River" by Diane Setterfield

It was a dark and stormy night...

Well, not exactly. But it is a dark night in 1887, the solstice night, the longest night of the year.

"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."

A crowd has gathered at The Swan, an ancient inn on the Thames River. The crowd is prone to storytelling, and no one tells a story like Joe Bliss, the husband of the Swan's landlady. But that night a story all its own takes shape—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 of some sort, but the crowd is once again shocked when they discover it's not a puppet, but the lifeless body of a small child.

"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."

When Rita Sunday, the town's most reliable medical personnel, arrives, she takes care of the unconscious man and mends his wounds, and then examines the little girl. No one is sure what the little girl's connection is to the man, but a pall falls over the crowd at her untimely and tragic death. And then, a few hours later, she starts breathing again. No one, not even Rita, who searches for a scientific answer, understands how this could have happened.

Who is this little girl? To whom does she belong? Where is she from? How is she connected to the wounded man? No one can find out any answers, especially because the little girl is mute and cannot provide any information. But of course, that doesn't stop those from near and far from inventing stories that explain her situation. And while fictions grow and become more elaborate, there are three families who believe the little girl belongs to them, and each has a complicated story about how they know this to be so, stories as twisted as the Thames itself.

First and foremost, Once Upon a River is a tribute to the art of storytelling. It is beautifully told, and Diane Setterfield weaves together folklore, magic, myth, and good old tall tales as she unfolds this mystery. But beyond the questions that arise about the little girl, this book tells other stories as well, revealing long-held family secrets, regrets, recriminations, and suspicions.

This is a dense book with a lot of characters. It took me a little while to get everyone straight in my head, because there are a few narratives unfolding at once. While I usually read really fast, the pacing of this book was a little slower, so I couldn't rush through it, and while I felt like it plodded a little bit from time to time, in the end, the pacing worked. If you rush through the story, you'll miss some of the richness of the plot.

Setterfield knows how to set a mood, how to create fascinating characters, and how to tease out just enough suspense to keep you always wanting more. Once Upon a River is a special story, and I could totally see it as a television movie or miniseries, because so often the book came to life in my mind's eye.

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