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Once Upon a River
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Archive: Other Books > Once Upon a River - Setterfield - 5 stars

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message 1: by Jgrace (last edited Dec 16, 2018 03:05PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jgrace | 2752 comments Once Upon a River -Setterfield
Another 5 star audio performance by Juliet Stevenson
5 stars

"Along the borders of this world lie others. There are places you can cross. This is one such place."

Crossing into the world of this book is like a river journey. The river is one version of the Victorian Thames. You step into a boat and step out at an inn, The Swan at Radcot. The Swan is the place to go if you want to hear good stories. This story is about a little girl who drowned and came to life again. Or did she? Who is she? So many stories flow around the mysterious little girl who is washed up by the river on the eve of the winter solstice.

I loved everything about this book. The setting is so richly described, I feel like I’ve been there. There are so many characters entangled in the mystery of the ‘little girl’, and every individual has a full personality and an interesting backstory. There’s an active community going about it’s business, tending crops, digging gravel, manning the barges, attending church. And always returning to The Swan for the gossip and the stories. Setterfield uses the regular drinkers at The Swan to add a bit of comic philosophy to the story. They are like Shakespearean jesters adding opinions about everything from Darwin’s theory of evolution to the importance of exact word choice in telling a good story. (“But you can’t say she was ‘haring’ up the river.” “Whyever not?” “Have you ever seen a hare rowing a boat?”)

I’m not sure I could pick a favorite character out of so many. I even like the empathetic pig. I appreciated that the female characters stepped out of traditional Victorian roles without seeming anachronistic. Margot manages The Swan. It’s been in her family for generations. Rita Sunday is the country nurse and midwife. She’s a single lady and educated, but they are used to her. This allows Rita pursue a scientific answer to the child’s survival. (There must be a rational explanation.) Many of the male characters are just as unconventional. Robert Armstrong, the prosperous black farmer, overcomes negative first impressions with his educated voice and his consummate polite kindness. Joe Bliss is too sickly to help much with managing the inn, but he brings the customers in with his expert storytelling. The itinerant photographer, Henry Daunt, illustrates the year from one solstice to the next, focusing his camera on all of the major players as the season changes.

Of course the story has its evil characters, and they are very, very evil. In addition to the mysterious little girl there are other vulnerable characters; Lily White, the parson’s emotionally unbalanced housekeeper; Jonathan, Margot and Joe’s Down Syndrome son; and two impoverished runaway children who contribute to the satisfying ending. It felt like a slow, tranquil story in some ways, but there’s plenty of drama; kidnap and murder, drowning and flood, birth and death. And there’s romance. Setterfield has written some of the best romantic passages I have ever read.
“Then he looked beyond the ever-shifting alteration to study the stillness of her expression. He knew his camera could not capture this - that some things were only truly seen by the human eye. This was one of the images of his lifetime. He simply exposed his retina and let love burn her flickering, shimmering, absorbed face onto his soul.”

Given the evil events of the plot and Rita’s scientific investigations, the book’s plot is well grounded in realism. But the constant storytelling culture of The Swan’s customers leaves room for touches of magic. Where is the reality and where is the story? This book isn’t a fantasy. It is historical fiction, but with that perfect grace note of myth that is magical realism.

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

message 2: by Booknblues (new)

Booknblues | 5496 comments So glad to hear that this is a worthy read. I've been wondering about it.

message 3: by Amy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Amy | 8282 comments I so can't wait to read this one! That was a great review.

Nicole R (drnicoler) | 7694 comments I also really loved this book! I bet it was great on audio. I loved the gothic feel to the story.

I am not sure that it will make my Top 10 this year, though it is in the running! I just had a really great reading year. lol

Jgrace | 2752 comments Here's another thing that I liked. The fictional Henry Daunt was based on a real photographer, Henry Taunt.

I can really see the story in his photographs. The author says she used them in creating her story.

message 6: by Joanne (last edited Dec 17, 2018 07:54AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joanne (joabroda1) | 7232 comments I have had this on my radar for awhile-I believe I may use it for the "36" challenge this year

message 7: by [deleted user] (new)

Wonderful review! I've got this one high on my list!

Joy D | 3186 comments Nice review! This book will make my top ten this year.

Joanne (joabroda1) | 7232 comments I put this on my "36" list-thinking i am going to take it off, I really want to read it and keeping it there means I will have to hope my number comes up!

message 10: by annapi (new) - added it

annapi | 4907 comments I have not yet read a book by Setterfield. This one sounds interesting!

Jgrace | 2752 comments annapi wrote: "I have not yet read a book by Setterfield. This one sounds interesting!"

The Thirteenth Tale is also one of my favorites.

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